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Blackwater Mess: Unaccountable Mercenaries?

Iraq Occupation's Co-Dependence on Private Security Contractors


Private armies, or so-called private security contractors (PSCs), play an increasingly significant role in support of government or non-governmental organizations in war zones and unstable regions of the world. The United States uses PSCs in the Balkans, in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places. Contractors, including interrogators, in Iraq and Afghanistan have been problematic for using force too liberally or employing interrogation techniques that defy international conventions.

On Sept. 16, 2007, in central Baghdad, members of North Carolina-based Blackwater Worldwide (previously known as Blackwater USA) killed 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded 27 while escorting a convoy through central Baghdad. According to the Iraqi government, the shooting, which Blackwater guards started, was unprovoked. On Oct. 9, two American guards with another private security company, Australian-run Unity Resources Group (based in Dubai), shot and killed two women riding in an Oldsmobile. In both instances, the security companies were working for the United States Agency for International Development.

The shootings precipitated a rethinking of private contractors’ role in Iraq (and in war zones generally). On Oct. 30, the Iraqi cabinet voted to end security firms’ immunity from Iraqi law. The same day, the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department agreed to place all security contractors in Iraq under the supervision of the American military.

Who are private security contractors? Why doesn’t the military fill their role? Who pays them? Why do they have immunity? Here’s a summary of the issue.

The Numbers: How Many Private Contractors?

According to the Los Angeles Times, private contractors outnumber American troops in Iraq—180,000 contractors, compared with 160,000 American troops. The overwhelming majority of those contractors are not armed security guards but provide such services as construction, weapons system maintenance, laundry, food services, clerical services and the like. They include “at least 21,000 Americans, 43,000 foreign contractors and about 118,000 Iraqis,” according to the Times, “all employed in Iraq by U.S. tax dollars.”

No official figures state exactly how many private contractors in Iraq are armed guards defined as “private security contractors.” The Washington Post reports on estimates running between 20,000 and 30,000, although “some estimates run much higher.”

The Numbers: At What Cost to Taxpayers?

Contractors have different contracts with different agencies. Blackwater, for example, has at least $109 million worth of contract with the State Department, and one of its subsidiaries was just awarded a $91 million contract by the Pentagon for operations in the Middle East.

The numbers pale in comparison with the overall cost of private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The State Department alone spent $4 billion in 2006 on those contracts, some of which include police training for Iraqi and Afghan forces. The State Department employs three private security contractors in Iraq: Blackwater (the company has 987 employees in Iraq, 744 of them American and just 12 of them Iraqi); Fort Worth, Texas-based DynCorp International (151 employees, 100 of them American and just 15 of them Iraqi) and Herndon, Va.-based Triple Canopy (257 employees, 101 of them American, two Iraqis). DynCorp is by far the greatest beneficiary of State Department contracts. Of the more than $2 billion in revenue it collected in the year ending in March 2007, 54 percent originated from State Department contracts; 43 percent originated from Pentagon contracts—and all $2 billion originated with U.S. taxpayers.

Money as the Big Lure of Private Security World

In the early days of the Iraq war, a private security contractor could earn up to $1,500 a day, as some employees of Blackwater did as bodyguards for L. Paul Bremer, the American viceroy and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq after the American invasion and until the Iraqi government assumed sovereignty again in June 2004. As the number of contractors has multiplied in Iraq, the number has settled closer to $400 to $600 per day.

International Law, U.S. Immunity and “Mercenaries”

Private security contractors are forbidden by international law and the Geneva Conventions from actively taking part in hostilities — unilaterally or alongside soldiers. The laws of war, however, don’t forbid the use of contractors as a police force. Contractors may also use force in self-defense, or when absolutely necessary to defend other individuals or protect property. In Afghanistan and especially in Iraq, it’s been difficult, if not impossible, to make the distinction between security and combat operations involving contractors. That’s one reason private security contractors are increasingly called mercenaries, even though the definition of the word under the Geneva Conventions’ Article 47 leaves room for debate.

Contractors working with American occupation forces, including private security contractors, are considered civilian non-combatants. Depending on the circumstances, they operate under the laws and usages of war and resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, under U.S. law, including Coalition Provisional Authority orders, and under Iraqi law. Which jurisdiction applies in which circumstances is a murky question made murkier by American initiatives to shield contractors from legal accountability. On June 27, 2004, L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority—the Bush administration’s occupation government in Iraq until June 2004—signed revised CPA Order Number 17 granting immunity from “Iraqi laws or regulations in matters relating to the terms and conditions of their contracts[…].” That means private security contractors could not be tried by Iraqi courts if they were involved in a shooting incident in the course of fulfilling their contractual obligations. CPA orders are in effect until superseded by acts of the Iraqi government.

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