Private security in Iraq: whose rules?
A major gunfight has sparked rage and debate over Blackwater's role.
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There are an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 such guards-for-hire in Iraq – a small fraction of the 182,000 civilian contractors employed by the US for everything from food service jobs to trash collection.Skip to next paragraph
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Most of the security personnel work for the Department of Defense or US intelligence agencies. About 1,400 are employed by the Department of State, according to US government figures.
Of these, some 1,000 are Blackwater employees. About three-quarters of the Blackwater personnel are US citizens, with the rest Iraqis and third-country nationals.
In recent Senate testimony, US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said, "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."
Blackwater was founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince. Other company leaders are also former military special operations veterans. The company describes itself as the most comprehensive such firm in the world.
It detractors say it may be the most aggressive, as well. Both feared and revered, Blackwater has a certain tough image in the Wild West atmosphere of today's Iraq. Security personnel and others who work in the country all have stories to tell about Blackwater contractors, known for their devil-may-care attitude on the roads and aggressive tactics.
Blackwater helicopters swirl through the skies like insects. Distinctive for their spherical glass canopies, and their persistent whine, they inadvertently announce that an official entourage is racing along, somewhere down below.
At least 15 Blackwater employee have been killed in Iraq, in fire fights and ambushes as well as in helicopter crashes. Family members of four Blackwater employees who were murdered in Fallujah in March 2004, an incident that led to the full-scale US assault on that city, allege the company sent the men into dangerous territory without adequate backup. In testimony before the US Congress last February, family members of the men family members of the men said: "Private military contractors like Blackwater operate outside the military's chain of command and can literally do whatever they please without any liability or accountability from the US government."
According to the four family's statement, the men killed in Fallujah had been promised armored vehicles, six man teams and extensive briefings with maps and intelligence information before conducting missions in Iraq. In the Fallujah incident, none of that was provided, the families said.
"In fact, when Scott Helvenston [one of the murdered Blackwater employees] asked for a map of the route, he was told "it's a little late for a map now."
The firm has also been involved in some notorious past incidents, including one last Christmas, in which an inebriated off-duty Blackwater employee shot and killed a guard working for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi inside the Green Zone.
At time of writing, the Iraqi government had suspended Blackwater operations within the country.
If that ban is made permanent, "they will sell their client list and employees to some other company," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "The other contractors will try to get a much better sense of what the rules are and who makes and enforces them."
That the contractors are not subject to Iraqi control may well be an untenable situation, note experts. But it would be difficult to ban all of them outright, considering their importance to the US.
"Nobody is going to be able to throw the contractors out of there," says David Isenberg of the British-American Security Information Council. "They're the American Express card of the American military. The military doesn't leave home without them, because it can't."