When mercenaries employed by Blackwater USA killed at least eleven Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square on September 16, the news provoked tremendous outrage,
but little surprise, in Iraq. Blackwater’s heavily armed soldiers, with their black helicopters and SUVs, have been menacing the population ever since the company won the $27 million no-bid contract to guard the first US occupation chief, L. Paul Bremer, in 2003. Iraqi officials charge that there were at least six prior incidents involving Blackwater, resulting in ten Iraqi deaths in the past year alone, as Jeremy Scahill reports in his latest article, “Making a Killing,” on page 21. That these mercenaries operate with complete impunity–unaccountable under either US or Iraqi law–was widely known and resented among Iraqis. It was Bremer who issued the infamous Order 17, which insulated his protectors from any form of prosecution for crimes committed in Iraq. A policy of greater arrogance and contempt for Iraq’s sovereignty can scarcely be imagined.
When Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called for Blackwater’s expulsion in the wake of the Nisour Square shooting, for once he spoke for the people of Iraq. He was supported by the country’s Interior, National Security and Defense ministries and the Supreme Judiciary Council. If the United States truly cared about the “political progress” of Iraq’s “nascent democracy,” as George W. Bush recently claimed, that demand would have been the end of the story. Order 17 would be rescinded; the Nisour Square shooters would stand trial in an Iraqi court; Blackwater would be given the boot. Instead, State Department convoys guarded by Blackwater resumed within a week of the Nisour incident. Maliki, under intense US pressure, agreed to put his demand on hold pending a joint US-Iraqi investigation.
The truth is that the United States cannot carry on this occupation without private forces, especially Blackwater’s. The occupation of Iraq is the most privatized war in US history. There are 630 companies in Iraq, with 180,000 employees offering services ranging from cooking and driving to the protection of top Army officers. Among them are 181 “private security” companies with tens of thousands of mercenaries on the ground. These firms, which have reaped more than $4 billion in US government contracts, have a vested interest in the continuation of the war. As the Pentagon struggles to recruit troops, private soldiers are filling the gap. For war supporters it’s a bonus that their numbers are relatively easy to hide–it is even difficult to obtain an accurate count of their deaths, which is convenient for an Administration that so dislikes attention to the human costs of the war that it won’t allow photos to be taken of the coffins of fallen American troops.
Some members of Congress have proposed steps to rein in the cowboy contractors roaming Iraq. Senator Barack Obama introduced legislation earlier this year that would require clear rules of engagement for armed contractors, expand the military code of justice to govern their actions and provide for the Defense Department to “arrest and detain” contractors suspected of crimes and turn them over to civilian authorities for prosecution.
Such changes are essential if private contractors are to continue to play a role in US military operations overseas. But calls for greater regulation and oversight miss the larger issue. As The Nation‘s Scahill said in his testimony before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee on September 21, “In the bigger picture, this body should seriously question whether the linking of corporate profits to warmaking is in the best interest of this nation and the world.”
Some in Congress are finally beginning to ask that question. Democratic Senators Jim Webb and Claire McCaskill have proposed legislation creating a Commission on Wartime Contracting modeled after the Truman committee, which investigated waste and fraud during World War II. “We now have more contractors on the ground in Iraq than we do American troops. This situation is unprecedented in our history and is fraught with legal challenge,” said Webb. “Hundreds of billions of dollars have been appropriated and spent in Iraq alone, resulting in billions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse.”
Blackwater should answer for the crimes of its soldiers in Iraq. But it shouldn’t have soldiers in Iraq. Calls for withdrawal must include troops like those who fired on the fleeing crowds in Nisour Square.