Commentary — September 21, 2007, 6:00 pm

Blackwater Remains Above the Law

On Monday, Iraqi authorities, responding to a shootout that left as many as 20 Iraqis dead, announced that they were banning Blackwater USA from operating in their country. It seemed the fledgling government was finally taking a stand regarding the proliferation of mercenaries working for the United States government in Iraq. “Blackwater has made many mistakes resulting in other deaths, but this is the last and the biggest mistake,” said Brigadier General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry. “Security contracts do not allow them to shoot people randomly. They are here to protect personnel, not shoot people without reason.”

For its part Blackwater insists that its guards, who were accompanying a State Department convoy, fired not randomly but in defense of its clients. “The ‘civilians’ reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies,” said Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Blackwater. (For more on Blackwater, see my article “Contract with America: Hard terms for the soldier of fortune” in the October Harper’s.)

About 180 private companies now supply a shadow force of more than 130,000 civilians—30,000 of them armed—who do everything from securing U.S. Army bases and personnel in Iraq to delivering supplies and guarding the American ambassador there. And never before has the Iraqi government threatened a major contractor with expulsion. Of course, it’s up in the air as to whether Iraq really has the power to ban the United States’ most prominent security contractor. Blackwater’s contract is with the U.S. State Department, not with the Iraqi authorities; in fact, the Iraqi government can’t even require Blackwater and other private military companies to abide by Iraqi law, not since U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer issued his infamous Order 17, which granted American contractors immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.

Nevertheless, the Iraqi government has announced that it will revoke Blackwater’s operating license. Good luck with that–Blackwater’s license actually expired last year. Since then, about a thousand of its guards have been carrying out such high-profile tasks as guarding U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and other senior American diplomats and escorting convoys throughout Iraq with the company’s armed “Little Bird” helicopters and black SUVs. Since the company can’t be prosecuted under Iraqi law, it’s not clear how Iraq would suddenly begin to enforce the licensing process. And so far it hasn’t.

“There has been no official action by the Ministry of the Interior regarding plans to revoke licensing,” Blackwater’s Tyrrell said on Tuesday.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Blackwater has been questioned about a violent episode in Iraq involving its workers. Last Christmas Eve, an inebriated Blackwater employee shot an Iraqi official’s bodyguard. The employee was reportedly fired but not prosecuted.

On Monday, a State Department spokesman said that Condoleezza Rice had called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to express her regret “over the death of innocent civilians that occurred during the attack on an embassy convoy.” She said nothing about revoking Order 17 or otherwise making the United States’ private army accountable to the law. Meanwhile, the official State Department incident report agreed with Blackwater’s assessment that their security guards’ fire was “defensive”–but neglected to mention that Iraqis were killed and wounded by the bullets.

The State Department has failed to return repeated requests for comment. I will update this story if they reply.

Daphne Eviatar is an attorney and a senior reporter at The American Lawyer.

Single Page

More from Daphne Eviatar:

From the October 2007 issue

Contract with America

Hard terms for the soldier of fortune

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada



September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


In Praise of Idleness


I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today