BAGHDAD – Security contractor Blackwater, under investigation in the killings of at least 16 Iraqis, turned a helicopter into an air ambulance Wednesday after bombs wounded the Polish ambassador to Iraq and members of his staff.

The helicopter evacuated Ambassador Edward Pietrzyk and three security guards to a U.S. military hospital.

Witnesses said the explosives were planted on both sides of the narrow side street where the Polish embassy is. About 1,000 Polish troops are in Iraq.

The diplomat’s convoy had left the embassy and was about to pull onto a main road about 200 yards away when the first bomb detonated.

Mohammed Kadhim, 32, a worker performing maintenance in a house across the street from the embassy, said he’d been near a window and was blown onto the floor amid shattered glass.

Then came a second, louder explosion. Police and Iraqi army officials on the scene said the second explosion was two bombs wired together. Some witnesses also reported small-arms fire.

Kadhim and other workers ran outside and saw the convoy’s badly damaged vehicles. Two of the armored Toyota Land Cruisers were nearly destroyed.

Witnesses and Iraqi police said that one wounded man, apparently a Polish security guard, lost a hand and sustained massive wounds to his abdomen and a leg, while the ambassador and two other security guards appeared to have lesser injuries.

The police also said a bystander was killed and a passing taxi driver was wounded.

Within 10 minutes of the explosions, Kadhim said, a small helicopter settled onto the road near the smoldering trucks and the wounded were loaded aboard as other helicopters hovered nearby, apparently providing security.

Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater, confirmed that a company helicopter was used in the evacuation but wouldn’t say anything more about the incident.

Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the Poles were taken to an American combat support hospital.

U.S. military officials and diplomats in Baghdad condemned the attack.

American Ambassador Ryan Crocker visited Pietrzyk in the hospital Wednesday afternoon, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said.

A Polish Embassy spokesman declined to comment.

Blackwater has nearly 1,000 security guards in Iraq who guard U.S. diplomats and government visitors, such as members of Congress, but it wasn’t protecting the Polish convoy at the time of the explosion. It’s billed the government nearly $1 billion for its work here.

The company is under fire from Iraqi leaders and under investigation by the U.S. Congress. A shooting incident Sept. 16 that involved one of the company’s security details left at least 11 Iraqis dead and has prompted four formal probes.

Wednesday’s rescue came a day after Blackwater owner Erik Prince defended the company’s behavior in Iraq at a hearing by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Blackwater contractors have been in 195 incidents involving gunfire since 2005, according to statistics the committee released this week. At least 16 Iraqis were killed in those incidents, according to the committee’s staff.

U.S. investigators haven’t released findings on the Sept. 16 shootings. Iraqi officials have said their investigation showed that Blackwater was to blame. They’ve referred the case to a magistrate to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.

On Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki predicted in a televised news conference that Blackwater would be forced to leave the country because of repeated improper shootings.

Military spokesman Bergner also released details about U.S. troops’ controversial arrest of an Iranian man Sept. 20 in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah. Bergner said the man, whom Iraqi officials have identified as Aghai Farhadi, was a senior leader in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp’s elite Quds force and had been operating in Iraq as an Iranian agent for more than a decade.

The group he led was in charge of all Quds force operations in north-central Iraq, including cross-border transfers of weapons, people and money, Bergner said.

Officials in the Iraqi and Kurdistan governments have denounced the arrest, saying Farhadi was a businessman traveling with an invited trade delegation.

(Price reports for The (Raleigh) News & Observer. Kadhim is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)

(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

AP-NY-10-03-07 1854EDT

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