Making a Killing
This discussion of Order 17 is important but in practical terms it may well be moot, as it is hard to imagine the United States allowing the prosecution of US private security forces in an Iraqi court. Industry representatives say that in cases where contractors are alleged to have committed crimes or engaged in misconduct, Washington has told them to get the contractors in question out of Iraq quickly. As one private security contractor recently told the Washington Post, "We were always told, from the very beginning, if for some reason something happened and the Iraqis were trying to prosecute us, they would put you in the back of a car and sneak you out of the country in the middle of the night."
That is precisely what happened after an incident that occurred last Christmas Eve, in which an off-duty Blackwater operative allegedly shot and killed the Iraqi bodyguard of Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi inside the Green Zone. Blackwater officials confirm that they whisked the contractor safely out of Iraq, which they say Washington ordered them to do. Iraqi officials labeled the killing a "murder."
Blackwater says it fired the contractor, but he has yet to be publicly charged with any crime. Representative Dennis Kucinich, a member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has suggested that "there's a question that could actually make [Blackwater's] corporate officers accessories here in helping to create a flight from justice for someone who's committed a murder." According to a memo from the US Embassy to Secretary Rice, after the shooting, Abdul-Mahdi tried to keep the story under wraps because he believed "Iraqis would not understand how a foreigner could kill an Iraqi and return a free man to his own country."
While there may be a debate about subjecting private forces to Iraqi courts, legal mechanisms do exist to prosecute armed contractors in US courts for crimes committed in Iraq. But the Bush Justice Department would have to press charges, and that hasn't happened. US contractors in Iraq reportedly have their own motto: "What happens here today stays here today."
While much of the media attention stemming from the September 16 killings focuses on the current crisis, this is hardly a new situation. In just the past nine months, Blackwater forces have been at the center of several other fatal shootings that sparked protests from the Iraqi government.
There was the Christmas Eve incident, and then, in May, Blackwater forces engaged in back-to-back deadly actions in a Baghdad neighborhood near the Iraqi Interior Ministry. In one incident, Blackwater forces fired on an Iraqi vehicle they said had veered too close to their convoy, killing a civilian driver. As with the September 16 shooting, witnesses say it was unprovoked. In the ensuing chaos, the Blackwater operatives reportedly refused to give their names or details of the incident to Iraqi officials, sparking a tense standoff between Blackwater and Iraqi forces, both of which were armed with assault rifles. It might have become even bloodier if a US military convoy hadn't arrived on the scene and intervened. A day before that incident, in almost the same neighborhood, Blackwater operatives found themselves in a gun battle lasting nearly an hour that drew in US military and Iraqi forces, in which at least four Iraqis are said to have died. US sources said the Blackwater forces "did their job," keeping the officials alive.
Iraqi officials allege that there have been at least six deadly incidents involving Blackwater in the past year alone, which in addition to the September 16 death toll have caused ten Iraqi deaths. An Iraqi official says they show Blackwater "has a criminal record." Among these are a February 4 shooting allegedly resulting in the death of Hana al-Ameedi, an Iraqi journalist, near the Foreign Ministry; a February 7 shooting in which three guards were allegedly killed outside Iraqi state television offices; a September 9 shooting during which five Iraqis were killed near a government building in Baghdad; and a September 12 shooting that wounded five people in eastern Baghdad.