So, those uppity Iraqis are determined to exercise sovereign control over their own country by enacting a law to regulate even (gasp!) gun-toting western ‘bodyguards’:
Iraq has said it would review the status of all security firms after what it called a flagrant assault by Blackwater contractors. Eleven people were killed while the firm was escorting a U.S. embassy convoy through Baghdad on September 16.
“This legislation will cover everything to do with these companies. The companies will come under the grip of Iraqi law, will be monitored by the Interior Ministry and will work under its guidelines,” [Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Kareem] Khalaf said.
“They will be strictly punished for any (violations) on the street.”
(Reported by Reuters, 25th September)
As the BBC helpfully reminds us, “contractors are currently granted immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law by Order 17 of the Coalition Provisional Authority – the now-defunct interim body set up by the US-led coalition in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein.”
By Wednesday, Reuters was reporting that the American Defense Department was joining the State Department in running its own investigation:
Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert Gates had sent a five-person team to Iraq to review the contractors’ operations.
…Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England had also ordered commanders to collect copies of contractors’ standard operating procedures and guidance on the use of deadly force to ensure they conform with U.S. rules.
The State Department is investigating a shooting incident earlier this month in which 11 people were killed while contractors from the U.S. firm Blackwater were escorting an embassy convoy through Baghdad.
Those contractors worked for the State Department. The Pentagon employs 7,300 security contractors in Iraq, but none of them are from Blackwater.
Morrell avoided getting directly into the whole Iraqi law side of things, but then he would, wouldn’t he? He’s repping the DoD, which is scrabbling to cover its arse before some scandal breaks on its own contractors. Yet even while he “rejected suggestions that security contractors in Iraq operate without oversight”, he couldn’t help but push the line that America (and by implication not Iraq) should investigate the actions of Americans and American companies:
We have the means to go after them through the Department of Justice. We have the means to go after them through military courts. Just because there has not been a prosecution brought does not mean that the authority does not exist to deal with people who misbehave or break the law.”
There does seem to be a rather delicious irony here: the DoD, which is so feverishly opposed to the idea that “unlawful combatants” held by American forces should be released from the Pentagon’s own quasi-legal system – one which is outside the controls of the standard principles of jurisprudence – into the realm of habeas corpus and cross-examination, is now pushing for US private citizens to be accorded the protections of the American courts for crimes they may have committed in a far-off foreign land.
So on the one hand an Iraqi accused of killing an American in Iraq might well find himself or herself whisked away to the Guantanamo Hilton, held virtually incommunicado for years, subject to treatment which would not be acceptable within the (hardly cushy) civil American prison system, with extremely limited access to legal assistance or welfare checks, and the possibility of summary punishment at the eventual end. On the other, an American accused of killing an Iraqi in Iraq might well find himself or herself whisked away to the States, given access to lawyers, bailed, permitted to exercise their constitutional rights whilst waiting to hear whether the authorities intend to proceed, considered innocent until proven guilty, possibly prosecuted, and maybe, just maybe, convicted by a jury of their peers – and then given the opportunity through the appeals system to question any such conviction. C’est la vie!
Anyway, the State Department was in a tizzy on Tuesday, when Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, complained to Condi Rice that her goons were suppressing evidence about the Blackwater situation which the HOC wanted to see:
“Blackwater has informed the committee that a State Department official directed Blackwater not to provide documents relevant to the committee’s investigation into the company’s activities in Iraq without the prior written approval of the State Department,” Mr. Waxman’s letter [to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] stated. The letter was made available to the news media on Tuesday.
In response, a State Department statement late Tuesday said: “There seems to be some misunderstanding with regard to this matter. All information requested by the committee has been or is in the process of being provided.”
The statement added: “Blackwater has been informed that the State Department has no objection to it providing information to the committee. We have offered to make available for testimony those officials in the best position to respond to the specific issues the committee has raised.”
(Reported in the NY Times)
By Thursday 27th, Waxman was once more waxing Blackwater’s arse, this time over its behaviour back in 2004, when it sent its contractors into Fallujah, the “hottest zone in Iraq in unarmoured, underpowered vehicles.” This was the incident when “four Blackwater employees escorting a convoy were killed and their charred bodies hung from a bridge”.
Waxman said the committee’s research showed that leading up to the incident, Blackwater was an “unprepared and disorderly organization” operating in a hostile environment.
“Mistake apparently compounded mistake,” he said.
The report was based on documents and interviews with 18 individuals with knowledge of the incident, including Blackwater’s Baghdad operations manager and project director and seven other staff from the company.
A day before the incident, the report said Blackwater’s operations manager in Baghdad sent an e-mail to company headquarters in North Carolina complaining about a lack of equipment, including armoured vehicles, ammunition and weapons.
“I need new vehicles, I need COMS, I need ammo, I need Glocks and M4s … I’ve requested hard cars from the beginning,” said the e-mail.
It’s possibly not the slick image of military competence and professionalism which Blackwater is aiming for – and the eyewitness reports from this month’s Baghdad balls-up published in Thursday’s NY Times probably don’t help either:
Participants in a contentious Baghdad security operation this month have told American investigators that during the operation at least one guard continued firing on civilians while colleagues urgently called for a cease-fire. At least one guard apparently also drew a weapon on a fellow guard who did not stop shooting, an American official [who “was briefed on the American investigation by someone who helped conduct it”] said.
This unnamed ‘American official’ (hmmm…) goes on to provide a broad outline of the events of 16th September:
The episode began around 11:50 a.m… Diplomats with the United States Agency for International Development were meeting in a guarded compound about a mile northeast of Nisour Square, where the shooting would later take place.
A bomb exploded on the median of a road a few hundred yards away from the meeting, causing no injuries to the Americans, but prompting a fateful decision to evacuate. One American official who knew about the meeting cast doubt on the decision to move the diplomats out of a secure compound.
“It raises the first question of why didn’t they just stay in place, since they are safe in the compound,” the official said. “Usually the concept would be, if an I.E.D. detonates in the street, you would wait 15 to 30 minutes, until things calmed down,” he said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive device.
But instead of waiting, a Blackwater convoy began carrying the diplomats south, toward the Green Zone. Because their route would pass through Nisour Square, another convoy drove there to block traffic and ensure that the diplomats would be able to pass.
At least four sport utility vehicles stopped in lanes of traffic that were entering the square from the south and west. Some of the guards got out of their vehicles and took positions on the street, according to the official familiar with the report on the American investigation.
At 12:08 p.m., at least one guard began to fire in the direction of a car, killing its driver. A traffic policeman said he walked toward the car, but more shots were fired, killing a woman holding an infant sitting in the passenger seat.
Nice work if you can get it.
PS Reuters is running with this story, citing both the report in the NY Times and a similar one in the Washington Post, which is sourced by an anonymous State Department official and our friend the “U.S. official familiar with the investigation”.