Private security in Iraq: whose rules?
A major gunfight has sparked rage and debate over Blackwater's role.
WASHINGTON AND BAGHDAD
– He was driving towards Baghdad's Al-Nesowr Circle when he saw the US convoy pass by – two Humvees and five Chevrolet Suburbans.Skip to next paragraph
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Then, says the Iraqi, he heard a loud explosion further down the street in the direction the convoy was headed. Gunfire erupted. It didn't initially seem to come from the Americans.
The witness and other nearby Iraqis fled their cars and took cover behind cement barriers. They watched as two small helicopters – Blackwater USA's signature "little birds"– swarmed the area and began shooting at the street.
This Sept. 16 Baghdad firefight, described to a Monitor reporter by an eyewitness, has infuriated the Iraqi government and sparked a debate in Washington about the prevalence and privileges of private security companies in Iraq.
An Iraqi Ministry of Defense report says that 20 Iraqis were killed in the incident, including a mother and child. US officials say they are conducting their own investigation.
"It's a tragic incident, but we don't know what we don't know at this point," says one American officer with an interest in the security situation. "I see a commitment to get to the bottom of what happened and take action based on the findings. I do understand how Iraqis could be angered by what they've heard thus far."
In a sign of how serious the situation has become, the US Embassy in Baghdad suspended diplomatic travel outside the protected Green Zone on Tuesday. Blackwater USA, based in Moyock, N.C., is one of three firms employed by the State Department to provide protection for US missions in Iraq. The others are Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, both based in Washington's Virginia suburbs.
In the case of the latest incident, Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said in a statement Monday that the company's contractors "acted lawfully and appropriately.... Blackwater regrets any loss of life but this convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job to defend human life."
Iraqis have long bristled at the presence of the private guards, who they claim are little more than mercenaries with little respect for Iraqi lives and less discipline than uniformed US troops.
An Iraqi police officer who works in Karada, a mixed sectarian neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, says the foreign private security firms act out of their own interests as they jet through the city and seem to pay little heed to the dangers they pose to average citizens on the street.
The officer says employees of the firms use overly aggressive tactics, crashing into cars and disobeying traffic laws and often rolling over gardens and hitting trees – and never stopping.
He says he once tried to help an Iraqi driver who was gravely wounded by private security guards even though he had tried to get out of their way. "They are bad," he says.
A 2004 regulation, promulgated by the US occupation officials who then ran Iraq, granted US private security contractors full immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.
Technically, they could be prosecuted in US courts for misdeeds in Iraq under certain circumstances, according to a July Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on the subject.
However, their prosecution in US military courts could be subject to constitutional challenge, notes CRS. And there are practical limits – such as the difficulty of collecting evidence – on the ability of US civilian courts to handle such cases.
"It is possible that some contractors may remain outside the jurisdiction of US courts, civil or military, for improper conduct in Iraq," concludes CRS.
This legal gray area stems in part from the fact that the Iraq conflict represents the first time the US has depended on private contractors to provide widespread security services in a hostile environment.