The Iraqi government said it would suspend the license of Blackwater, probably the most famous among the armies of private security contractors working inside Iraq, after an incident in central Baghdad in which government officials allege eight civilians were killed. The incident looks certain to rekindle the controversy of the wide role given to the contractors in the Iraq war, with critics saying that they operate outside the sorts of legal oversight and codes of conduct that restrict the behavior of soldiers in war zones.
Blackwater first became famous after four of its contractors were murdered in Fallujah in early 2004, an event that prompted an American assault on that city that engendered widespread anger against the US inside the country.
Reuters reports that the government is vowing a tough line with Blackwater, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki saying the incident was a "criminal act." An Interior Ministry spokesman said the contractors, working for a US security firm, "opened fire randomly at citizens" on Sunday after mortar rounds landed near their cars.
"We formed a committee to investigate the incident and withdraw the license from this company and also to deliver those who committed this act to the court," Brigadier-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf told Reuters.
The U.S. military said on Sunday security contractors working for the State Department were involved in an incident, but gave no further details.
Khalaf said the contractors opened fire after two mortar rounds landed in Nusour Square in the western Baghdad district of Mansour.
"By chance the company was passing by. They opened fire randomly at citizens," Khalaf said. Eleven people were killed, including one policeman, and 13 people were wounded, he said.
The Washington Post reports that one of its employees witnessed the incident.
A Washington Post employee in the area at the time of the shooting witnessed security company helicopters firing into the streets near Nisoor Square in Mansour. Witnesses said they saw dead and wounded people on the pavement.
Blackwater often uses light helicopters with riflemen at the windows to provide cover to ground-based convoys.
The Associated Press reports that witnesses said the convoy definitely came under attack.
"We saw a convoy of SUVs passing in the street nearby. One minute later, we heard the sound of a bomb explosion followed by gunfire that lasted for 20 minutes between gunmen and the convoy people who were foreigners and dressed in civilian clothes. Everybody in the street started to flee immediately," said Hussein Abdul-Abbas, who owns a mobile phone store in the area.
The wartime numbers of private guards are unprecedented — as are their duties, many of which have traditionally been done by soldiers. They protect U.S. military operations and have guarded high-ranking officials including Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Baghdad.
Blog reactions to the incident, so far, have roughly broken down along left-right lines, with right-leaning blogs viewing groups like Blackwater as patriots doing difficult jobs, and left-leaning ones seeing the groups as dangerous and financially predatory.
On Freerepublic, a popular pro-war blog, one fairly representative comment was: "Methinks they were just doing their job. The message is, if terrorists dress like civilians you can't shoot at them even if they blow up your vehicle. What cowardice."
At Democratic Underground, which sits firmly on the left of the US blog divide, this was a fairly typical comment. "Goes to show what I think of the sovereignty of the Iraqi government. It will be interesting to see if they can make this stick, and improve their rep, or if [it] fails and provides another evidence of their government's impotence."
The controversy comes even as Blackwater appears set to begin offering direct counterinsurgency training to foreign air forces. A number of blogs, including Danger Room, a national security blog for Wired Magazine, referred to a subscription-only article in Jane's, a defense magazine, in late August, that said Blackwater was seeking to buy a Super Tucano light-attack plane. The Wired blog shares the following passage from the Jane's article.
Blackwater President Gary Jackson confirmed to Jane's at the Force Protection Equipment Demonstration in Stafford, Virginia, in mid-August that the company is in the process of acquiring the Super Tucano for a new training programme.
If the deal goes through, it will give the company a significant boost in a growing international market for fixed-wing tactical flight instruction, as well as a potential platform for counter-insurgency-style training.
The Super Tucano is in service with the Brazilian Air Force, which operates the aircraft as a primary aircraft trainer and in border-patrol missions under its SIVAM (Sistema de Vigilância da Amazônia) programme. Colombia finalised a contract for 25 Super Tucanos in December 2005; the aircraft has also been marketed to Singapore and the Dominican Republic. Fully equipped, the aircraft features five weapon hardpoints and a night-vision goggle (NVG)-compatible 'glass cockpit'.
In an interview with PBS Frontline, Peter Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institute in Washington who has tracked the rise of Private Military Contractors (PMCs) like Blackwater, said the business is worth $100 billion a year and worries about the impact their role is having on policy and accountability.
You're talking about an industry that really didn't exist until the start of the 1990s. And since then, it's grown in size, in monetary terms to about $100 billion worth of revenue a year. In geographic terms, it operates in over 50 different countries. It's operated on every single continent but Antarctica.
It operates in poor states, rich states -- you know, the Saudi Arabias, the Congo-Brazzavilles. It operates in superpowers like United States -- we're the largest client of that industry; the Pentagon's entered into over 3,000 contracts with it in the last couple years -- to weak states, failed states, Sierra Leones, Liberias, Afghanistans of the world.
… sometimes [the Pentagon has] outsourced things that infringed upon the core function of the military. And that's when you see all these kind of questions of accountability, all these kind of questions of how the heck did we get contractors in that role, where it's not only the public that's surprised, but people in the military themselves who are surprised and offended by it.