On Tuesday 8 October Marou Awanis was driving through Baghdad when she accidentally got too close to a convoy guarded by “private security contractors”. The guards opened fire on her car, killing her and one passenger, and injuring others in the back seat.
The deaths of 48 year old Marou and 30 year old Geneva Jalal marked another bloody day in Iraq, and again highlighted the role of private security firms who operate outside the law in the country.
According to a statement from her family, Marou was working as an unofficial taxi driver chauffeuring her two eldest daughters and her neighbour’s children to Baghdad university.
Her husband Azad died two years ago after developing complications following heart surgery. Since then she had been working the college runs to supplement her meagre income.
Family spokesman Dr Paul Manook, Marou’s brother and a businessman based in Wiltshire, said his sister was driving through Baghdad’s Karada district when she was killed by the security guards.
The Karada commercial district is considered one of the safest in the Iraqi capital.
The guards, who work for the Australian firm Unity Resources Group, were escorting employees of a US funded NGO responsible for ensuring the “transparency and accountability” of Iraqi officials.
Unity Resources Group, which lists “executive protection” and “people tracking” among its services, was involved in a similar incident in March 2006 when one of its guards gunned down a 72 year old professor in Baghdad.
The Australian government says that Kays Juma, who was an Australian citizen training agricultural students, was killed because he failed to stop at a “security checkpoint”.
Despite the killing of Juma, Unity Resources Group was awarded official status by the Iraqi government. It continues to recruit former soldiers, SAS men and policemen to work in Iraq.
The security firm claims that the women ignored warnings to “pull back” from the convoy. But the circumstances of their deaths are contested.
One witness told Reuters news agency that it looked like the women panicked when they accidentally found themselves close to the convoy.
The witness said, “The guards fired warning shots when they were about 80 metres away, which probably made the women panic because they went forward a little bit, and [the guards] started firing at her from all directions.”
An Iraqi policeman told journalists that the guards leapt out of the vehicles and fired up to 40 rounds of ammunition into Marou’s car. Then, “they drove off like gangsters”, he said.
A former security contractor, who worked in Iraq for three years, told Socialist Worker, “If you are driving in a convoy that is under attack then it is accepted that you would fire back, but in this case the convoy was not under attack.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said, “If the contractors were close enough to shoot them, then they were close enough to see that this was a car full of women and children.
“The whole thing is absolutely appalling.”
Although he wanted to emphasise that not all security contractors were trigger happy, he said that “the attitudes of US contractors towards Iraqi civilians is terrible, especially those who work for the Blackwater company.
“Many of them believe they are in Iraq to avenge the 11 September attacks, even though Iraqis had nothing to do with it.”
Marou’s family are demanding an investigation into her death and the role of the security contractors in Iraq.
Dr Manook said, “These were two innocent civilians with children in the car. My sister was a loving mother who was always helping others.
“Whatever attempts were made to warn her before opening fire were clearly inadequate.
“What scrutiny is given to the training and procedures adopted by private security firms operating in Iraq to ensure that they are capable of respecting basic human rights, including my sister’s right to life?”
The latest tragedy comes after Blackwater killed 17 Iraqi civilians in a rampage through Baghdad last month.
The killings created a wave of anger in the country, with even the US-backed Iraqi government expressing its disgust and demanding that the US government revoke Blackwater’s licence.
The rising number of deaths highlight what the War on Want group describes as an “exponential growth” of “corporate mercenaries” – the private military and security companies – in recent years.
In a report released earlier this year, Corporate Mercenaries, The Threat of Private Military and Security Companies, War on Want found that, “Private military and security companies (PMSCs) now constitute the second largest occupying force in Iraq behind the US military.
“Although no one knows exactly how many of these mercenaries are active in Iraq, most estimates have settled on a minimum figure of 20,000.
“The US government accountability office, however, in its June 2006 report to Congress, cited a newer calculation from the Private Security Company Association of Iraq that there are more than 48,000 PMSC employees working for 181 different companies.”
The report notes that for British companies, including the notorious Aegis, “Iraqi contracts boosted the annual revenue from £320 million in 2003 to more than £1.8 billion in 2004. Income for the industry reached $100 billion in 2004.”
For victims there is little scope for justice or compensation. All foreign security employees have immunity under the “transitional laws” imposed on Iraq in the early days of the occupation.
Some families of civilian victims have received compensation from the US military after their loved ones were killed by troops. But this does not extend to the victims of contractors.
Earlier this year the Human Rights Watch group said that “claims against contractors are denied out of hand on the grounds that they are not government employees”.
It condemned “the air of impunity surrounding civilian contractors employed by the US government”.
Marou, who was a former scientist with the Iraqi ministry of agriculture, is survived by her three daughters Nora, 20, and Karoon, 18, both university students in Baghdad, and Alice 13.
The US military admitted on Thursday of last week that it killed scores of men, women and children in an airstrike on a neighbourhood north of Baghdad.
Over one million Iraqis are believed to have died as a result of the occupation since it began in 2003.