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Pull the Plug on the Mercenary War | The Nation

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Pull the Plug on the Mercenary War

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Funding the Mercenary War

About the Author

Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the author of the bestselling Blackwater...

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"These private contractors are really an arm of the administration and its policies," argues Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who has called for a withdrawal of all U.S. contractors from Iraq. "They charge whatever they want with impunity. There's no accountability as to how many people they have, as to what their activities are."

Until now, this situation has largely been the doing of a Republican-controlled Congress and White House. No longer.

While some Congressional Democrats have publicly expressed grave concerns about the widespread use of these private forces and a handful have called for their withdrawal, the party leadership has done almost nothing to stop, or even curb, the use of mercenary corporations in Iraq. As it stands, the Bush administration and the industry have little to fear from Congress on this score, despite the unseating of the Republican majority.

On two central fronts, accountability and funding, the Democrats' approach has been severely flawed, playing into the agendas of both the White House and the war contractors. Some Democrats, for instance, are pushing accountability legislation that would actually require more US personnel to deploy to Iraq as part of an FBI Baghdad "Theater Investigative Unit" that would supposedly monitor and investigate contractor conduct. The idea is: FBI investigators would run around Iraq, gather evidence, and interview witnesses, leading to indictments and prosecutions in U.S. civilian courts.

This is a plan almost certain to backfire, if ever instituted. It raises a slew of questions: Who would protect the investigators? How would Iraqi victims be interviewed? How would evidence be gathered amid the chaos and dangers of Iraq? Given that the federal government and the military seem unable--or unwilling--even to count how many contractors are actually in the country, how could their activities possibly be monitored? In light of the recent Bush administration scandal over the eight fired US attorneys, serious questions remain about the integrity of the Justice Department. How could we have any faith that real crimes in Iraq, committed by the employees of immensely well-connected crony corporations like Blackwater and Halliburton, would be investigated adequately?

Apart from the fact that it would be impossible to effectively monitor 126,000 or more private contractors under the best of conditions in the world's most dangerous war zone, this legislation would give the industry a tremendous PR victory. Once it was passed as the law of the land, the companies could finally claim that a legally accountable structure governed their operations. Yet they would be well aware that such legislation would be nearly impossible to enforce.

Not surprisingly, then, the mercenary trade group with the Orwellian name of the International Peace Operations Association(IPOA) has pushed for just this Democratic-sponsored approach rather than the military court martial system favored by conservative Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. The IPOA called the expansion of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act--essentially the Democrats' oversight plan--"the most cogent approach to ensuring greater contractor accountability in the battle space." That endorsement alone should be reason enough to pause and reconsider.

Then there is the issue of continued funding for the privatized shadow forces in Iraq. As originally passed in the House, the Democrats' Iraq plan would have cut only about 15 percent, or $815 million, of the supplemental spending earmarked for day-to-day military operations "to reflect savings attributable to efficiencies and management improvements in the funding of contracts in the military departments."

As it stood, this was a stunningly insufficient plan, given ongoing events in Iraq. But even that mild provision was dropped by the Democrats in late April. Their excuse was the need to hold more hearings on the contractor issue. Instead, they moved to withhold--not cut--15 percent of total day-to-day operational funding, but only until Secretary of Defense Robert Gates submits a report on the use of contractors and the scope of their deployment. Once the report is submitted, the 15 percent would be unlocked. In essence, this means that, under the Democrats plan, the mercenary forces will simply be able to continue business-as-usual/profits-as-usual in Iraq.

However obfuscated by discussions of accountability, fiscal responsibility, and oversight, the gorilla of a question in the Congressional war room is: Should the administration be allowed to use mercenary forces, whose livelihoods depend on war and conflict, to help fight its battles in Iraq?

Rep. Murtha says, "We're trying to bring accountability to an unaccountable war." But it's not accountability that the war needs; it needs an end. By sanctioning the administration's continuing use of mercenary corporations--instead of cutting off all funding to them--the Democrats leave the door open for a future escalation of the shadow war in Iraq. This, in turn, could pave the way for an array of secretive, politically well-connected firms that have profited tremendously under the current administration to elevate their status and increase their government paychecks.

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