Posted by: Tony Carson | 28 September, 2007

On Blackwater and lawlessness

An interesting USA Today editorial: Private ‘Rambos’ in Iraq warrant greater scrutiny

Last Christmas Eve, an American working for the private Blackwater security company in Iraq allegedly got into a drunken argument — and shot the guard of the Iraqi vice president dead. The American was hustled out of the country. No charges were filed.

Unusual? Not really. The United States employs tens of thousands of contractors in Iraq, including about 30,000 armed security guards. They are all but immune from prosecution. Blackwater personnel, who guard U.S. diplomats and others, are among the most visible and, by many accounts, obnoxious, with a tendency to wave guns as if in a Rambo movie.

The Christmas Eve shooting is one of many events that inform an Iraqi government threat — rescinded for now — to bar Blackwater from Iraq. The immediate reason is that Blackwater guards killed at least 11 people in a Baghdad neighborhood Sept. 16. The facts are in dispute, but the point is that this showdown has been a long time coming.

This latest episode should be a wake-up call to the downsides of outsourcing so much of the Iraq war — and should prompt better regulation and oversight. Until now, it’s as if the Bush administration and Congress have averted their eyes as the role of private contractors has exploded to the point that the U.S. military can’t function without them in Iraq. Their numbers — in roles from cooks to reconstruction experts — approximate those of the formal U.S. military presence.

Yet even though they are one face of the United States, paid for by U.S. taxpayers, there’s little transparency or accountability. A report from the Congressional Research Service cited a lack of public information on the terms of these contracts, including costs, hiring standards, background checks and training.

The armed private security guards are exempt from Iraqi prosecution in Iraq. Though a recent act of Congress made them subject to the military code of justice, the Pentagon has never issued instructions on how to carry that out.

The Baghdad shooting has belatedly stirred some attention. The United States and Iraq are conducting a joint investigation. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon was looking at a broad array of issues — including the fact that contractors are luring talent away from the military with high salaries. On Thursday, a congressional panel issued a report critical of Blackwater’s lack of preparedness in Fallujah in 2004, when four of its guards were ambushed and burned, and the remains of two of them strung from a bridge.

The guards were among about 1,000 contractors who have died since the start of the war, including 14 from Blackwater, according to icasualties.org, which tracks deaths in Iraq.

Like U.S. soldiers, the contractors operate in a brutal, hair-trigger atmosphere where any car could hold a suicide bomber. Some incidents may be unavoidable. But also like U.S. soldiers, the contractors must be held accountable for their actions.

Blackwater USA did not respond to requests to provide an opposing view to this editorial.

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