BAGHDAD — Iraqi authorities arrested a British contractor Sunday over the shooting deaths of two co-workers in Baghdad's protected Green Zone. The suspected gunman could be the first Westerner to face an Iraqi trial on murder charges since a security pact lifted the immunity that had been enjoyed by foreign contractors for most of the war.
The gunman shot his colleagues — one British and one Australian — during a quarrel, then he wounded an Iraqi while trying to flee their compound inside the vast area that is sealed off from the rest of the capital, Iraqi officials said.
"It started as a squabble," Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi told The Associated Press. "The suspect is facing a premeditated murder charge. The matter is now in the hands of Iraqi justice."
He said the suspect was being held at an Iraqi police station in the Green Zone.
The Green Zone houses the U.S. and British embassies as well as the Iraqi government headquarters. The U.S. military turned over security of the area to Iraqi forces when the security pact took effect on Jan. 1 but many foreign organizations maintain separate guarded compounds within the zone.
The British Embassy said two Britons were in Iraqi custody in connection with Sunday's shooting.
But Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf maintained that only one suspect was being held, identifying him as Daniel Fitzsimons.
An official familiar with the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said the Iraqis detained a second Briton for questioning but he had been released.
Fitzsimons was an experienced contractor who had worked for security firms in Iraq since 2004 and had only recently been rehired by ArmorGroup after a previous stint, the official said.
Patrick Toyne-Sewell, a spokesman for ArmorGroup Iraq, confirmed that two employees of the group identified as Paul McGuigan of Britain and Darren Hoare of Australia were killed early Sunday in a firearms incident.
"We are working closely with the Iraqi authorities to investigate the circumstances of their deaths," he said, adding that their relatives had been informed.
McGuigan, 37, was an ex-Royal Marine who had worked for the company in Iraq for six years, according to Toyne-Sewell, but more details were not immediately available about Hoare.
The U.S. Embassy referred questions to British, Australian and Iraqi officials.
The shooting occurred in the compound operated by Research Triangle Institute, the headquarters of two U.S.-funded nonprofit groups — the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.
A U.S.-Iraqi security pact, which took effect on Jan. 1 and replaced the U.N. mandate for foreign forces, lifted the immunity that had been enjoyed by foreign contractors in Iraq for much of the six-year war.
The move was provoked by outrage over a deadly September 2007 shooting in Baghdad involving another North Carolina security firm, Blackwater Worldwide, now known as Xe.
The agreement also set a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces from the entire country by the end of 2011.
Sunday's incident is the second case in less than three months involving foreign contractors, who have long been accused by the Iraqis and others of unruly behavior.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces detained five Americans on June 3 in connection with an investigation into the stabbing death of a fellow contractor.
But the five were later released into U.S. custody and Iraqi authorities said their case did not involve the killing of James Kitterman of Houston, who was found dead in his car in the Green Zone on May 22.
The separate allegations involving the Americans remain under Iraqi investigation and the court will decide if a trial is warranted, a U.S. official said.
"Under the terms of the bond, those released must remain in Iraq until further order of the court," the official said, also declining to be identified for the same reason. "Due to privacy considerations we cannot provide further details."
Separately, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Sunday that he was hopeful that three Americans detained in Iran after crossing the border from northern Iraq will be released soon
Iranian border guards detained freelance journalist Shane Bauer and his companions Sara Shourd and Josh Fattal on July 31 while they were hiking near a waterfall on a mountain in Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region.
U.S. and Kurdish officials say the Americans accidentally entered Iran through poorly marked border territory, but the Iranians have indicated they were looking into possible espionage charges.
Zebari, who met last week with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, said he believed the case only involved allegations of illegal entry and he was optimistic the Americans would be released.
"We made an intervention on their behalf with the Iranian government to provide information and to release them," he said Sunday in a telephone interview. "I am hopeful, but I haven't received any formal confirmation."
The comments came as President Barack Obama's national security adviser James Jones said Iran has confirmed it has the three Americans in custody, the first official word on their detention.
The U.S. State Department has dismissed the spying allegations.