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Shadow army of mercenaries

By Alan Maass | October 12, 2007 | Page 1

THE MASSACRE of Iraqi civilians in mid-September by the heavily armed guards of Blackwater USA has focused attention on the U.S. government's use of mercenaries in the occupation of Iraq.

In its wake, senators and representatives are promising to investigate a shadowy side of the invasion that previously only activists talked about--the heavily armed private contractors doing the work of the occupation, but answerable to no one but the shareholders of American security companies.

Blackwater's latest killings took place in the Monsour neighborhood of Baghdad. The company's armed guards in a State Department convoy began shooting without provocation or warning, according to an Iraqi government investigation.

Blackwater gunmen killed at least 17 people and wounded another 27--with victims at all points in a near-360 degree circle around the convoy as it passed through Nisour Square, say Iraqi officials. "They were shooting in every direction," one investigator told the New York Times. "All four Blackwater vehicles were shooting."

What else to read

Independent journalist Jeremy Scahill's best-selling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army is a powerful expose of the security company and its roots. For Scahill's take on the latest stage in the scandal, read "Making a Killing" and "Blackwatergate," written for the Nation magazine.

Charlie Cray's article "Blackwatergate" for the Huffington Post describes more generally how the Bush administration has obstructed efforts to enforce the law against corrupt private contractors in Iraq.


An Iraqi lawyer, Hassan Jabar Salman, who was shot four times in the back during the spree, told Britain's Independent that he saw "women and children jump out of their cars and start to crawl on the road to escape being shot. But still, the firing kept coming, and many of them were killed. I saw a boy of about 10 leaping in fear from a minibus--he was shot in the head. His mother was crying out for him. She jumped out after him, and she was killed."

Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesperson for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, said the shooting was "a deliberate crime against civilians. It should be tried in court, and the victims should be compensated."

But Blackwater bosses say they won't go anywhere near a courtroom. The company's millionaire founder, Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL and bankroller of the Christian Right, said in congressional testimony that Blackwater gunmen "acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack."

Dismissing all criticism from lawmakers, Prince insisted that "the 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were, in fact, armed enemies, and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire."

But this is hardly the first time Blackwater has been accused of murder in Iraq, as a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing last week revealed.

On Christmas Eve last year, for example, an off-duty Blackwater guard, reportedly drunk, shot and killed the Iraqi bodyguard for Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The killing took place inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, and Blackwater officials immediately flew the contractor out of Iraq. The gunman has yet to face any charges, in Iraq or the U.S.

According to a State Department memo, Abdul-Mahdi collaborated in keeping the story under wraps for fear that "Iraqis would not understand how a foreigner could kill an Iraqi and return a free man to his own country."

Iraqi government officials say there have been at least six deadly incidents involving Blackwater in the past year alone, causing another 10 deaths on top of the September 16 massacre in Baghdad. Staffers for the House Oversight committee reported that Blackwater operatives in Iraq have opened fire at least 195 occasions--and fired the first shot 80 percent of the time.

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THE TOTAL number of private contractors in Iraq is estimated at 180,000, outnumbering U.S. military personnel even at the height of Bush's "surge" of combat troops. Many contractors are civilians, performing non-combat duties, but roughly one-quarter, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000, are armed employees of security companies.

These mercenaries are entirely above the law. In June 2004, as one of his last acts as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer issued Order 17, a decree that "granted sweeping immunity to private contractors working for the United States in Iraq, effectively barring the Iraqi government from prosecuting contractor crimes in domestic courts," wrote journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of a best-selling book exposing Blackwater. "The timing was curious, given that Bremer was leaving after allegedly 'handing over sovereignty' to the Iraqi government."

Last week, the House passed legislation to okay the prosecution of private contractors--though in U.S. rather than Iraqi courts--and the Senate is expected to follow suit. But the fact remains that not one Blackwater or other security company operative has been charged for any crime committed in Iraq.

More generally, according to Charlie Cray, a veteran of liberal watchdog groups, the Bush administration has obstructed every attempt to enforce the law against private contractors operating in Iraq, even in cases of blatant fraud and corruption.

"[W]histleblowers have filed dozens upon dozens of lawsuits, trying to prod the Bush administration to fight contractor fraud," Cray wrote in a commentary. "The response: The administration has obtained court order after court order barring the filers and their attorneys from even discussing the cases--i.e., to keep the American people from knowing how bad the cronyism and corruption really is."

The September 16 massacre has focused more attention on private contractors in U.S.-occupied Iraq. But even among this shadow army, Blackwater stands out, says Scahill. Among the more than 100 security companies with personnel in Iraq, it has a reputation even among other contractors for arrogance and unprovoked violence.

According to Scahill, Col. Thomas Hammes, a former U.S. military official who oversaw the creation of a new Iraqi military, described being "threatened and intimidated" by Blackwater operatives while in Iraq. "[T]hey were doing...exactly what they were paid to do in the way they were paid to do it, and they were making enemies on every single pass out of town."

The company was one of the first into Iraq in the summer of 2003, after getting a $27 million no-bid contract to protect Paul Bremer. Since then, according to Scahill, Blackwater has pocketed more than $700 million in "diplomatic security" contracts from the State Department alone.

No doubt the company's political connections helped in getting the contracts--and keeping things quiet when Blackwater mercenaries started shooting. Erik Prince is a fixture of the Christian Right who pumped money into George Bush's presidential campaigns. Another senior Blackwater executive is J. Cofer Black, a former top CIA official who helped design the "extraordinary rendition" program of turning "war on terror" prisoners over to countries where torture is legal.

Now, finally, a spotlight is being cast on Blackwater's shadowy world.

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