The Iraqi government announced Monday that it had revoked the license of one of the most prominent private U.S. security firms operating in Iraq, a decision that is expected to cause friction with U.S. occupying forces, which have increasingly come to rely on private contractors to meet their logistical and security needs.
The decision to revoke the license of Blackwater USA came one day after a Baghdad firefight that left eight civilians dead, the latest in a string of incidents involving private security contractors that have engendered resentment among Iraqis.
The Iraqi government also promised to prosecute those responsible for the deaths, a demand that is likely to become another source of tension with the U.S. and which drives home the legal gray area in which military contractors currently operate.
Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, said that contractors believed to be Blackwater employees opened fire on civilians in western Baghdad on Sunday, killing eight and injuring 13 more.
U.S. officials stated that the incident began when a convoy of State Department vehicles came under small-arms fire, the Associated Press reported.
"We have canceled the license of Blackwater and prevented them from working all over Iraqi territory," Khalaf told reporters. "We will also refer those involved to Iraqi judicial authorities."
"Blackwater’s independent contractors acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack in Baghdad on Sunday," Blackwater USA spokesperson Anne Tyrrell said in a statement late Monday. "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."
The expulsion of Blackwater contractors could greatly hamper the U.S. military effort in Iraq, which has come to rely on Blackwater to provide security for many leading officials, including Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
But Prattap Chatterjee of CorpWatch told IPS that even if Blackwater were banned from operating in Iraq, most of its employees could transfer to similar private security firms and the overall security situation for the U.S. would not change much.
"It’s hard to police an itinerant group of mobile warriors," Chatterjee said. "Even if Blackwater itself were banned from operating in Iraq, it’s likely that its contractors could find work at [comparable firms like] Aegis or Triple Canopy."
The Associated Press reported that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had telephoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki late Monday, and that the two had agreed to conduct a "fair and transparent investigation" into the killings.
But by Monday evening it remained unclear whether Rice’s efforts would be sufficient to head off Iraqi anger at the perceived offenses and impunity of Blackwater contractors.
According to figures released in July by the U.S. State and Defense Departments, more than 180,000 civilians are currently employed in Iraq by the U.S. government. The majority are Iraqis, but the figure also includes over 20,000 U.S. citizens and over 40,000 foreign nationals.
The figure also means that private contractors now outnumber the approximately 160,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq.
The most high-profile of these employees are security contractors, the armed forces that are responsible for protecting strategically important people, sites, and convoys. Although private security contractors are forbidden from engaging in offensive operations, their responsibilities can shade into the military when they are attacked.
The private security industry puts the number of security contractors in Iraq at about 30,000, although estimates vary widely.
Blackwater USA, which has an estimated 1,000 employees in Iraq and $800 million in U.S. government contracts, has been one of the most prominent private security firms operating in the country. Some of its notable assignments have included protecting L. Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, as well as Crocker, who is currently the leading U.S. diplomatic envoy to Iraq.
The firm came into the public eye in March 2004, when four of its employees were killed and mutilated by an Iraqi mob in Fallujah; the incident touched off the unsuccessful U.S. attempt to retake the city in April 2004.
Family members of the four employees slain in Fallujah have since sued Blackwater, alleging that the firm failed to provide necessary equipment and manpower that could have saved the employees’ lives.
Blackwater has in the past been criticized for using overly aggressive and confrontational tactics. One prominent critic, retired U.S. Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, has argued that the firm’s aggressive approach to protection detracts from the overall counterinsurgency effort to win over the local population.
"The problem is in protecting the principal they had to be very aggressive, and each time they went out they had to offend locals, forcing them to the side of the road, being overpowering and intimidating, at times running vehicles off the road, making enemies each time they went out," Hammes told PBS in 2005.
Sunday’s firefight in Baghdad was only the latest in a series of tense incidents involving Blackwater employees in Iraq that have highlighted the ambiguous legal status of private security contractors.
On Dec. 24, 2006, an off-duty and inebriated Blackwater employee shot and killed an Iraqi bodyguard of Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The employee was fired and brought back to the U.S., but as of yet no charges have been filed in the case.
And in May 2007, a Blackwater guard killed an Iraqi driver near the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, which set off an armed standoff between the Blackwater convoy and Interior Ministry forces.
As private-sector employees, security contractors are not subject to military court-martial, but under a 2004 decree of the Coalition Provisional Authority, they cannot be tried by the Iraqi justice system, either. As of yet, no U.S. contractors have been convicted for killing Iraqi civilians.
The perception among Iraqis that U.S. security contractors can act with impunity has engendered widespread resentment, and led the Iraqi government to vow on Monday that the perpetrators of Sunday’s deaths in Baghdad will be tried in Iraqi courts.
The State Department’s pledge of a thorough investigation into the deaths appeared designed to head off this same possibility by keeping judgment of the contractors in U.S. hands.
Messages left at Blackwater headquarters requesting comment were not returned.
The company was founded in 1997 by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, who is also a prominent conservative Christian and heir to a billion-dollar car-mirror fortune. Blackwater currently has about 2,300 employees operating worldwide.
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