Daughters’ anguish at funeral of mother killed by private guards

da385_218238a1.jpgThree Christian sisters, beating their mother’s coffin in grief, wailed and hugged each other at her funeral in Baghdad yesterday as their rapidly shrinking religious community vented anger at the foreign security guards who killed her.

Marou Awanis, a part-time taxi driver, and one of her women passengers became the latest victims to die at the hands of a foreign private security team in Iraq after they were shot dead in the centre of the capital on Tuesday.

Both women were Armenian Christians. Their deaths stunned their minority religious sect, which has seen its numbers in Iraq fall by more than a half, to 10,000, since the invasion of March 2003.

The killings also heightened a sense of outrage towards private security companies, in particular Blackwater, which many people regard as a private army that acts with impunity.

Unity Resources Group, an Australian security outfit based in Dubai, confirmed last night that its guards were responsible for Tuesday’s shooting in Baghdad. It said that the guards opened fire on the speeding car when it refused to slow down after several warnings, “including signs, strobe lights, hand signals and a flare”.

“Fearing a suicide attack, only then did the team use their weapons in a final attempt to stop the vehicle,” the company said. Witnesses and police said that Mrs Awanis, who had been driving two women and a child, mistakenly got too close to a Unity Resources convoy and came under immediate gunfire from the guards.

Scores of relatives and friends gathered at the main Armenian Church in Baghdad to grieve the death of Mrs Awanis, aged 48. The body of the second woman, identified as Geneva Jalal, was also there but no one from her family showed up.

Everyone was shocked that Mrs Awanis, a widow and former agricultural engineer who was forced to drive a taxi to make ends meet, had been killed. “I don’t know what to say. This is the worst crime I have ever seen,” said Abu Mareeam, the dead woman’s nephew.

The three daughters, Aless, 12, Karown, 20, and Noraa, 21, were doubled up in tears as they crowded around their mother’s simple wooden coffin, which was decorated with a small golden cross.

“These criminals killed a mother and left three orphaned girls. Who will take care of them now?” asked one relative, who gave her name as Umm Masees.

Watching the proceedings with sadness, the Rev Nareek Ashkanean, 50, said: “This is another crime against the citizens in Iraq. Every day civilians are being killed and no one is trying to stop it from happening.” He blamed foreign private security companies for a lot of the suffering.

“I ask the Government to stop these companies and to bring those who kill without reason to justice regardless of his nationality or his country,” Mr Ashkanean said. “I want the Government to force these companies out.”

Iraq and the United States formed a joint commission to look into a range of issues related to foreign private security companies in the wake of a shootout involving Blackwater guards that left 17 people dead last month. The commission has yet to make its recommendations but it is expected to explore areas such as accountability and jurisdiction.

The women are due to be buried at a cemetery near Baqouba, 35 miles (55km) northeast of Baghdad, today.

Minority faith

1.4 million Christians were recorded in Iraq’s last full national census in 1987

700,000 have fled since then, mostly to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey

30% of Iraqi refugees in the Lebanon are Christian, although Christians make up only 2-3 per cent of the Iraqi population

Sources: Iraqi Government; UNHCR