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For the first time since 1968, the Pentagon has charged a civilian contractor under military law. But the individual in question is not one of the Blackwater “shooters” alleged to have gunned down seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square last September, nor is it the Blackwater contractor accused of shooting to death a bodyguard to the Iraqi vice president inside the Green Zone on Christmas Eve 2006. In fact, the contractor is not even a US citizen. Nor is he an armed contractor. And the crime in question was not committed against an Iraqi civilian.
The swiftness of the military’s response to this alleged crime, the nature of that crime and the identity of the victim speaks volumes about the priorities of US oversight and law enforcement when it comes to contractor crimes in Iraq. What’s more, the news of the prosecution came just days before the State Department announced that despite the serious allegations against Blackwater, it was extending the company’s Iraq “security” contract for yet another year.
The accused contractor, Alaa Mohammad Ali, is a dual Canadian-Iraqi citizen who worked for the US corporation Titan as a military translator in the western Iraqi town of Hit. He reportedly emigrated to Canada after fleeing Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s violent suppression of the 1991 Shiite uprising. Now, Ali stands accused of stabbing in the chest a fellow contractor–reportedly another translator–on February 23. The military began the process of charging him four weeks later, on March 27.
By contrast, more than six months after the incident, no charges have been brought–under any legal system–against Blackwater’s personnel for the Nisour Square shootings, despite a US military investigation that found all seventeen of the Iraqi victims died as a result of unjustified and unprovoked shooting in an incident the military labeled a “criminal event.” Nor have charges been brought against the Blackwater operative alleged to have killed the Iraqi vice president’s bodyguard. Baghdad called that killing a “murder.” Weeks after the alleged killing, the Blackwater contractor was back in the Middle East working for another war contractor.
Ali’s case is the first to be brought since the release of a March 10 memorandum from Defense Secretary Robert Gates asserting greater military authority to prosecute contractors for crimes committed abroad. The memo was sparked by a 2006 Congressional amendment to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. “They want to test out a new American law on somebody who is not even an American,” said Capt. Clay Compton, Ali’s military lawyer, in an interview with the New York Times. “This is not the type of case that Congress envisioned would be tried. We will be challenging the justification for this case.”
But while lawyers, military officials and legislators debate the particulars of Ali’s case, the gorilla in the room is the stunning lack –for five years of occupation– of any accountability for the crimes of the members of the 180,000-strong force that makes up the shadow army of contractors working for the US in Iraq.