Iraq's private companies licensed by Washington to do dirty work

The Iraqi government is keen to prove that it can act independently. It remains to be seen whether the government will succeed in doing so. However, the government seems to be announcing its intentions loud and clear following the incident in which Blackwater USA security guards were involved. The incident took place in downtown Baghdad last Sunday.

News agencies reported recently that the Iraqi government was revoking Blackwater’s license. Had it occurred in another country, the incident could have been filed under trivia: a security company grossly violates government regulations and contract requirements by killing a number of civilians, and therefore the authorities must cancel its license. But Sunday’s shooting took place in Baghdad and hence it makes a difference. Blackwater spokesperson clearly stated that the company had merely taken the Iraqi government’s opinion into consideration, and the company would carry on its operations in Iraq in line with the terms of a contract between Blackwater and the U.S. government.

The Blackwater case is worth mentioning not only in terms of the incident per se. It is also quite noteworthy as part of the complex problem stemming from the presence of numerous security firms in Iraq. What did actually happen on September 16? The versions of the incident vary. According to Blackwater, one of the cars of a U.S. State Department convoy was struck by a roadside bomb as the convoy was passing through the Mansour district of western Baghdad. The convoy was caught in a vicious crossfire following the explosion. The convoy cars could not maneuver around the damaged vehicle, and Blackwater security guards had to engage. A different account of the events is provided by Iraqi passers-by and Iraqi policemen who happened to witness the incident. According to them, Blackwater personnel started shooting at civilians indiscriminately after the explosion. The shooting left at least 11 people dead. About fifteen people were wounded.

Even a more pro-American government than that headed by Prime Minister al-Maliki could not have disregarded such a tragedy. It was announced that the Iraqi government was pulling Blackwater’s license for its operations in Iraq. As it soon turned out, the Iraqi government appears to have overstepped its authority by revoking the license. Blackwater, a private military company and security firm based in North Carolina, sent a clear message to the Iraqi government: we are working for the State Department and the Pentagon, and therefore we are not taking any orders issued by the Iraqi authorities. It should be noted that there are tens of thousands of mercenaries currently working in Iraq for private military industry. Blackwater is believed to be one of a group of the most powerful private security firms rendering services to U.S. Department of State in Iraq. Not unlike other private security companies operating in Iraq, Blackwater has been previously criticized by Iraqi officials for provoking incidents which resulted in the high number of casual or indiscriminate civilian killings. However, the company has always been in the good books with the State Department. Blackwater contractors are reportedly guarding (or they did till September 17) the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

In theory, the Iraqi government has the right to revoke a private security firm’s license. The first private security contractors were licensed by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Following the formation of the Iraqi government, private security firms were to obtain the license from local authorities. However, it is not yet clear whether the Iraqi government has the resolve to put its theoretical right into practice. A number of high-ranking U.S. officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have promised a “fair and transparent” investigation into the accident. On the other hand, even the most knowledgeable expert in the subject is unlikely to cite a similar investigation of the past as having caused any political or legal repercussions.

There are other questions to be answered. Even some congressmen are becoming increasingly critical of the State Department’s excessive dependence on private security contractors used overseas in the role of armed forces and law enforcement agencies.

Critics stress the point that the U.S. government has not had proper control and supervision over security contractor activities so far. Keeping in mind that billions of dollars are allocated for the Pentagon and other governmental agencies officially tasked with preserving U.S. national security interests, it is hard to understand why the above fail to accomplish the mission.

Perhaps the congressmen who disapprove of the use of private security contractors are far too naïve. Indeed, official restrictions imposed on the activities of U.S. governmental agencies may appear too strict, whereas private security firms are simply indispensable for carrying out a bit of dirty work. In other words, the controversy over Blackwater is the litmus test for the new Iraqi government. Its claims to independence will be reduced to a joke if the revocation of Iraq license for Blackwater remains on paper. The failure to revoke Blackwater’s license will also clearly indicate that Washington is really interested in keeping the “tough boys” on hand to do the dirty work.

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov