Contract killing

Published : Nov 02, 2007 00:00 IST

The blood-stained door of the car in which two women were shot dead by private security guards on October 9 in central Baghdad. - ALI YUSSEF/AFP

The blood-stained door of the car in which two women were shot dead by private security guards on October 9 in central Baghdad. - ALI YUSSEF/AFP

The Nissour Square incident, in which mercenaries killed 17 civilians, has enraged Iraqis cutting across the ethnic and political divide.

The blood-stained door

THE killing of 17 Iraqis at Baghdads Nissour Square by contractors (read mercenaries) of the United States military firm Blackwater on September 17, once again highlights the controversial role played by the hired guns of the occupation forces. Similarly, in the second week of October, contractors working for an Australian-owned security company, under contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), fired on a car carrying civilians. Two Iraqi women were killed in this incident.

The apparently unprovoked Nissour Square incident by Blackwater guards has enraged all Iraqis, cutting across the ethnic and political divide. Prime Minister Nouri al-Malki demanded $8 million in compensation for each of the victims and the removal of Blackwater guards from Iraq within six months. A government spokesperson said that such a high compensation was demanded because Blackwater uses employees who disrespect the rights of Iraqi citizens even though they are guests in the country.

The Iraqi government has also demanded that the personnel involved in the killings be handed over for trial by an Iraqi court. It also pointed out that the contract for Blackwater to operate inside Iraq had expired in June 2006 and, therefore, it no longer enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Paul Bremer, the former U.S-appointed pro-consul in Iraq, scandalously granted Blackwater immunity from prosecution after promulgating the Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17 just a few days before power was nominally handed over to the elected government.

The Iraqi governments report on the Nissour Square massacre also documented 21 cases of previous killings of Iraqi civilians by private security forces. The report highlighted the fact that most of the killings took place when the contractors were protecting American officials on duty in Iraq. The U.S. State Department has acknowledged 52 shooting incidents involving Blackwater guards and Iraqi civilians this year alone.

Blackwater officials themselves admit to 195 shooting incidents in the past two years. In the majority of these incidents, it was the Blackwater guards who fired first.

Not that the U.S. Army has been more careful while dealing with Iraqi citizens. As Michael Hirsh wrote in Newsweek, the unspoken rule in the counter-insurgency policy of the George W. Bush administration is that almost all Iraqis, at least the males, are guilty unless proven not guilty. The policy of the occupation forces, both official and mercenary, is to shoot first and ask questions later. A U.S. Congressional Committee, which investigated Blackwaters activities in Iraq, has been very critical of its role. In the vast majority of incidents shots are fired from a moving vehicle and Blackwater does not remain on the scene to determine if their shots resulted in casualties.

The spokesperson for the Iraqi Prime Minister said that the incident at Nissour Square was a deliberate crime against civilians. The U.S. Army soldiers who were at the scene immediately after the Nissour square have reported that the Blackwater personnel resorted to excessive shooting on retreating civilians. This contradicts Blackwaters claims that they were defending themselves against enemy activity.

U.N. officials in Iraq said in the third week of October that they would start investigations to determine whether private contractors had committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in the country. The U.N. has urged the U.S. authorities to hold the private firms operating in Iraq responsible for human rights abuses, which have been frequently perpetuated by the contractors since the beginning of the occupation in 2003.

The U.N. has released a report covering the period from April 1 to June 30. The report warns that the increasing reliance on heavily armed teams of private armies risked eroding the difference between combatants and civilians. It underlines several instances of killings carried out by privately hired contractors with security-related functions in support of U.S. occupation forces.

In a Baghdad

The State Department has not been able to sweep the latest incidents of atrocities under the carpet. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ordered a comprehensive review of the policy of hiring private contractors to fight in war zones and the rules of engagement under which they operate. No action has, however, been taken in previous cases involving brazen acts of violence against unarmed civilians.

Its initial report on the Nissour Square incident was drafted by a Blackwater employee working in Iraq, according to U.S. media reports. That report virtually sought to absolve Blackwater of culpability. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also been ordered to probe the incident. Curiously, the FBI investigation team in Iraq is itself under the protection of Blackwater. This raises suspicions about the probe.

It is widely known that Blackwater, started in 1998, had close connections with the top neoconservative echelons of the Republican Party. Blackwater advertises itself as the most comprehensive, professional military, law enforcement, security, peace keeping and stability operations company in the world. Its founder and chief executive officer, Erik Prince, is a major contributor to the Republican Party and was a big backer of the Bush-Cheney ticket in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

Paul Bremer had given a no bid contract to Blackwater for providing security to the top U.S. officials in Iraq. The State Department has admitted to paying the company $832 million until now.

According to American media reports, the State Department had tried to hush up an earlier incident. A drunken Blackwater guard, acting on a dare, killed the official bodyguard of Iraqi Vice-President Adil Abd al-Mahdi on Christmas eve in 2006. The State Department offered a payment of $250,000 to conceal the murder. The Blackwater employee never faced any charges and was bundled out of the country post-haste to save him from the wrath of Iraqis.

As for the compensation, the U.S. occupation authorities have ruled that $15,000 is the maximum amount that they can give a bereaved Iraq family. If bigger amounts are given, a U.S. official said, Iraqis could be tempted to launch more suicide attacks against American targets.

Erik Prince was finally called to present himself before a U.S. Congressional Committee in the first week of October. Prince, without batting an eyelid, testified that his company acted appropriately at all times and refused to acknowledge that Blackwater was responsible for any innocent civilian deaths in Iraq. He, however, said, as an afterthought, that some civilians may have died owing to ricochets or traffic accidents.

Prince, however, admitted to the killing of the Iraqi Vice-Presidents body guard. He told the Congressional Committee that the Blackwater contractor responsible for the incident had been sacked after being whisked away to the U.S.

In Baghdad, private

The U.S. Military Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 does not allow charges to be brought against security firms working for the State Department. Only those security firms working for the U.S. military come under the purview of the Act. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a Bill in the first week of October, despite strong opposition from the White House, to bring all U.S. contractors in Iraq under the jurisdiction of U.S. law.

However, the bill does not have retroactive authority. An American lawyer, Alan Grayson, fighting on behalf of the Iraqis killed by contractors and U.S. forces, told Newsweek that the policy of the Bush administration was to run people off the road. They treat the local people as if it is some big shooting gallery. Its not just Blackwater; its everybody.

With the U.S-led military coalition now virtually non-existent in Iraq, there are now only two occupation armies in the country. One is the U.S. Army fighting the war and the other includes private mercenary armies of companies such as Halliburton and Blackwater, which support the army by performing key military jobs. The private armies are engaged in protecting truck and military convoys, catering to the U.S. Army, guarding important officials and even ensuring the supply of potable water to the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. They are engaged in dangerous duties, similar to the ones performed by U.S. troops.

More than a thousand contractors employed by the Pentagon and the State Department have been killed in Iraq in the past four years. More than 12,000 of them have been wounded. The casualty rate of the contractors is always glossed over while reporting the figures of military deaths and injuries in Iraq.

Never before has a war been privatised on such a grand scale as the war in Iraq. Before the military surge started in the middle of this year, there were 1,80,000 contractors as compared with 1,35,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The American commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, told the U.S. Senate during his confirmation hearing that there are tens of thousands of contract security forces that could help the U.S. Army accomplish the mission in Baghdad.

At the beginning of the occupation, there were 3,00,000 soldiers on the ground from 38 countries. The bulk of them were from the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Today most of the allies of the U.S. have either left Iraq, or like the U.K., are in the process of winding up. Private companies have filled the breach. These companies are active in Afghanistan too.

The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have enabled these companies to reap huge profits. Barrack Obama, one of the leading contenders for the Democratic ticket for the U.S. presidential election in 2008, said recently that the U.S. could not hope to win the hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors. To add insult to injury, these contractors are charging taxpayers nine times more to do the same jobs as soldiers, a disparity that damages their morale.

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