A shooting incident in a busy Baghdad square has galvanized efforts to bring accountability to private security firms operating in Iraq and raises new questions (AP) about Iraqi sovereignty. Following the incident, in which guards from the U.S. security company Blackwater allegedly killed at least eleven Iraqis, Iraq’s interior ministry sought to revoke (WSJ) the firm’s operating license. Calls for expulsion have subsided, but U.S.-led investigations continue (NPR), including the involvement of the FBI. A new report (PDF) by a House oversight committee says Blackwater has been involved in at least 195 shootings since 2005, with private guards firing first in most instances. The report directs partial blame for Blackwater’s aggressive tactics on the State Department, which contracts with the company for diplomatic security. Erik Prince, Blackwater founder and CEO, said his company has “acted appropriately at all times.”
The incident comes at an awkward time for Washington, with officials planning a limited drawdown later this year and concerns lingering over manpower. More generally, the blowup over Blackwater refocuses attention on the role of international security contractors in Iraq. The picture is messy one. Thousands of contracts to private firms ensure a wide array (PDF) of services, from cooking meals for soldiers to maintaining equipment. An estimated 180,000 individuals from the United States, Iraq, and other countries make up this private army of contractors, a force that outnumbers (LAT) the entire U.S. military presence. Roughly thirty-thousand of these mercenaries conduct security missions. Last year Congress passed legislation intended to expand military laws to include private contractors, but the Pentagon has yet to publish (PDF) guidance on “how the new law is to be implemented." Complicating enforcement is a 2004 order (PDF) drafted by the Coalition Provisional Authority that specifically exempts private security firms from Iraqi prosecution. The House of Representatives passed legislation on October 4 that would bring all U.S. government contractors under the jurisdiction of federal law (NYT). But the bill, even if enacted, would not be retroactive.
Prior to the Blackwater incident, oversight of security companies generated little notice in Washington. During congressional hearings September 10 and 11, not a single lawmaker asked a question about the performance of these security contractors, which are composed mainly of former military Special Forces. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who is himself protected by Blackwater guards, said their efforts are “worthy of respect of all Americans.”
Some Iraqis see things differently. The Economist says that while Iraqis may dislike foreign soldiers, “they dislike even more the foreign armed men they often regard as more trigger-happy and bullying.” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who says Blackwater has been complicit in previous civilian attacks, accused the company (LAT) of enflaming “contempt, hatred, and anger” among the Iraqi public. They are also expensive—at last count, the United States has spent nearly $4 billion on security services in Iraq, according to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). A July 2007 Congressional Research Service report (PDF) says a lack of transparency masks true costs.
It remains unclear whether operations of Blackwater and other security firms will be curtailed. But some U.S. analysts say the rift between Washington and Baghdad could bolster Iraqi politicians. Peter W. Singer, a security industry expert at the Brookings Institution, writes that going after contractors—and not U.S. forces—is a good way to score points with domestic critics. “The Iraqi government is supposedly a sovereign state,” he writes, “so it is not surprising that at some point it would start to act like one.”