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Blackwater's hired killers exposed

September 28, 2007 | Page 16

ERIC RUDER analyzes the turmoil in Iraq after a massacre by Blackwater guards.

THE MASSACRE of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad earlier this month by mercenaries from the Blackwater security company is straining relations between the U.S. government and Iraqi government leaders it put in power--and focusing attention on the tens of thousands of heavily armed "private contractors" who remain above the law in Iraq as they help enforce the U.S. occupation.

The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced it planned to file criminal charges in an Iraqi court against the mercenaries, who shot and killed at least 11 people and wounded 12 in the Mansour neighborhood of west Baghdad on September 16. Among the dead are two parents and their infant son.

As Socialist Worker went to press, tensions remained high in the run-up to a meeting between Maliki and George W. Bush--despite a public apology from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. For his part, Maliki is clearly using the conflict over Blackwater to push back after U.S. officials--Democrats as loudly as Republicans--have heaped abuse on his government for failing to stop sectarian infighting and govern effectively.

An Iraqi government investigation into the shooting uncovered a videotape that shows Blackwater gunmen--who were guarding a State Department motorcade--opening fire without provocation. Blackwater officials claim their guards were ambushed following a car-bomb explosion.

But Iraqi investigators point to a string of similar incidents, as well as Blackwater's reputation for heavy-handed disregard for Iraqis and even other contractors. "We think it's hard to give Blackwater the benefit of the doubt," one anonymous contractor told the Los Angeles Times. "Even among their peer group, we are also tired of having guns pulled on us and being generally abused."

Interior Ministry spokesperson Major Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said Iraqi authorities were also looking into six other fatal shootings involving Blackwater since February 4, with 10 Iraqis killed and 15 wounded. "These six cases will support the case against Blackwater, because they show that it has a criminal record," Khalaf said.

This sets up further political confrontation between Iraq's government and the U.S. According to the New York Times, a "provision originally called Order 17, signed by L. Paul Bremer III in 2004, while he was the top American administrator in Iraq, [that] was later enshrined into Iraqi law, effectively [gives] security companies working for the United States government immunity from prosecution here."

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ACCORDING TO a UN working group report on the use of mercenaries in Iraq, U.S. security companies "commonly operate without control, without visibility, without being accountable beyond the private company itself, and in complete impunity."

But even compared to other U.S. contractors, Blackwater operates under special State Department authority that exempts it from regulations applying to other firms--such as weapons restrictions, tracking of contractors' location and standards for reporting the use of gunfire.

After Blackwater's most recent indiscriminate killings, the Iraqi government said it would revoke the company's license. Within two days, that decision was reversed, and a few days later, Blackwater had resumed operations, providing security for senior state department officials in Iraq, including U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Maliki rescinded the order after receiving a call from Rice expressing her apologies. "The two agreed to conduct a fair and transparent investigation," according to the Wall Street Journal. "The U.S. clearly hoped the Iraqis would be satisfied with an investigation, a finding of responsibility and compensation to the victims' families--and not insist on expelling a company that the Americans cannot operate here without."

This admission--that the U.S. is dependent on Blackwater--is especially remarkable considering that Blackwater has just 1,000 personnel in Iraq, though they are tasked with guarding the most "high-value" American diplomats in the country.

In all, there are 30,000 to 50,000 mercenaries in Iraq working for other private security firms. The total number of contractors--including those who drive trucks, deliver mail, prepare food and perform a myriad of other non-combat duties--is an incredible 180,000, exceeding the 165,000 to 175,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

This massive private army allows the U.S. to thrust as many as possible of its uniformed military personnel into front-line combat duty.

So despite the fact that Maliki relented, the very threat to expel Blackwater gives him a powerful bargaining chip as he attempts to push back against U.S. threats to remove him.

If Blackwater can be banned, so can other contractors. This possibility creates a major headache for U.S. military planners already trying to contend with the need to lower the number of U.S. service members in Iraq by next spring to comply with the 15-month limit on deployments.

"Practically, the United States cannot operate in Iraq without [private-security contractors]--and Maliki knows this," said Deborah Avant, director of international studies at University of California-Irvine. "The chance to point a finger at one of the more controversial elements of U.S. strategy and put the United States on the hot seat even while sticking up for Iraqi sovereignty in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad is probably too good for him to pass up."

The bickering between the U.S. and its puppet in Iraq exposes the underlying difficulty for the U.S. occupation: no Iraqi political figure can reasonably hope to put out the fires of sectarian conflict that the U.S. has encouraged and continues to stoke to maintain its grip.

It's long past time to bring home Blackwater--and all the U.S. forces, military or not, occupying Iraq.

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