Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna / American Progress Action – 2007-09-18 23:00:05
BAGHDAD (September 18, 2007) — Yesterday, the Interior Ministry of Iraq announced that it was revoking the license of Blackwater USA, a private American company that provides security to government and private officials in Iraq such as Amb. Ryan Crocker.
Employees of the firm were involved in Baghdad shootout that killed at least nine civilians, including a mother and her child. Details of the shootout are murky. The shooting began after a car bomb exploded near a State Department motorcade in central Baghdad.
Blackwater and US officials say the security contractors then exchanged fire with armed attackers, but “three people who claimed to have witnessed the shooting” told McClatchy that “only the Blackwater guards were firing.”
Regardless, the incident has sent shockwaves through Iraq.
“We have canceled the license of Blackwater and prevented them from working all over Iraqi territory,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf. “We will also refer those involved to Iraqi judicial authorities.”
A senior Iraqi official, however, told Time that “as far as the license being permanently revoked, ‘it’s not a done deal yet.'”
Additionally, it is unlikely that Iraqi courts would have the legal ability to hold the contractors accountable. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Iraqi Prime Minister Mouri al-Maliki yesterday to offer condolences and the promise of a “fair and transparent investigation,” one American official in Baghdad told The New York Times that “this incident will be the true test of diplomacy between the State Department and the government of Iraq.”
Approximately 1,000 Blackwater employees are currently operating in Iraq. If the Iraqi government is able to successfully kick Blackwater out of the country, the move would deal “a blow to US government operations in Iraq by stripping” many “diplomats, engineers, reconstruction officials and others of their security protection.”
“There is simply no way at all that the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security could ever have enough full-time personnel to staff the security function in Iraq. There is no alternative except through contracts,” said Crocker in his Senate testimony last week. The Iraqi government has also said that it will “review the status of all private security firms operating in the country” to “determine whether such contractors were operating in compliance with Iraqi law.”
The total number of private contractors in Iraq is estimated between 126,000 and 180,000, which includes 20,000 to 50,000 private security guards.
The expulsion of Blackwater from Iraq would be a boon for Iraqi politicians as “newspapers in Iraq on Tuesday trumpeted the government’s decision.” Maliki is expected to “gain political capital from the move against unpopular foreign security contractors” while the national government as a whole would be given a political “boost.”
PRIVATE CONTRACTOR’S DARK PAST
“Visible, aggressive” private contractors have “angered many Iraqis, who consider them a mercenary force that runs roughshod over people in their own country.”
At Abu Ghraib, “the US Army found that contractors were involved in 36 percent of proven abuse incidents,” but “not a single private contractor named in the Army’s investigation report has been charged, prosecuted or punished.”
Though many other private security firms are operating in Iraq, Blackwater is perhaps the most visible. On March 31, 2004, four contractors working for Blackwater were brutally killed in Fallujah. After images of their mutilated bodies were shown hanging from a bridge, the American military laid siege to the city, resulting in some of the most intense fighting of the war.
In Dec. 2006, a Blackwater employee allegedly drunkenly killed a guard for the Iraqi Vice President. Instead of being held accountable in Iraq, the contractor was smuggled out of the country and fired by the company.
This past May, “Blackwater guards were involved in shooting incidents on consecutive days in Baghdad.” In total, Interior Ministry officials say they have “received reports of at least a half-dozen incidents in which Blackwater guards allegedly shot civilians, far more than any other company.”
LEGAL GREY AREA
“A Blackwater employee is not going to be subject to Iraqi courts,” says Scott Silliman, director of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University. The day before the Coalition Provisional Authority ceased to exist, L. Paul Bremer, the chief American envoy in Iraq, issued CPA Order 17, which “granted American private security contractors immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.”
Though “the Iraqi government has contested the continued application of this order,” they are restrained from “changing or revoking CPA orders,” so the order is still in effect. It is unclear what US laws would govern the actions of private security contractors operating in a foreign country.
Though “uniformed military personnel are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and ‘persons serving with or accompanying an armed force in the field’ are technically subject as well,” the application of the UCMJ to these private contractors would likely face constitutional challenges.
The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 covers civilians working for the Department of Defense, but even this would be insufficient to cover Blackwater employees involved in Sunday’s shootout, since they are actually employed by the State Department.
CONGRESS NEEDS TO ACT
Yesterday, House Oversight Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) announced that “the Oversight Committee will be holding hearings to understand what has happened and the extent of the damage to US security interests.”
In addition to investigating this specific incident, action needs to be taken that explicitly clarifies what laws govern private contractors and how they can officially be held accountable for their actions.
In fall 2006, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) added a clause to the 2007 Defense bill that “changed the law defining UCMJ to cover civilians not just in times of declared war but also contingency operations.” But “no Pentagon guidance has been issued on how this clause might be used by JAGs in the field.”
Graham’s clause also didn’t not extend to contractors not working for the Defense Department. Rep. David E. Price (D-NC) “has proposed legislation that would make all contractors, whether they work for the State Department or the Defense Department, to be subject to prosecution under US law.”
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