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Sending in the Praetorian Guard

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Most Americans know that America has 160,000-plus soldiers in Iraq today; fewer know that this number is cruising upwards and will top 200,000 before the summer ends. And very few know that in addition to the uniformed service personnel, the “total force commitment,” to quote former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, includes some 100,000 military contractors. Some of those contractors perform the functions traditionally associated with camp-followers – cooks, entertainment, logistical support. But others perform core military functions. They are, in essence, contract soldiers – or, to use the disfavored but time-honored expression, mercenaries.

For years I have tracked accounts of violence involving the Bush administration’s private-contractor army in Iraq and Afghanistan. It can be placed generally in three folders: contractor-on-civilian violence (in Baghdad an everyday occurrence, and in Kabul an increasingly common occurrence); contractor-on-contractor violence (as the standoff I personally experienced in Baghdad on April 5, 2006 between two security contractor units); and contractor-on-military violence. The last of these three categories is the most disturbing in some respects because it highlights a sensitive fact: the military contractors are outside of the chain of military command and they frequently flout directions of the military. One U.S. officer in Iraq described a prominent military contractor to me as “jackasses with assault rifles,” and noted how they regularly disregarded instructions from field officers and skirted all efforts to hold them to account.

Sunday’s Washington Post has an important report which needs to be studied carefully. It records a series of incidents, still only hazily understood, in which employees of the highest profile of the contract soldier companies, Blackwater, fired on civilians in Baghdad and then became embroiled in a two-day firefight with the Iraqi Army. The account given exemplifies each of the issues surrounding contractors in Iraq that I outlined. And it presents a critical test for oversight for the U.S. Forces in Iraq. Can they look into and resolve this? Or are the contractors still shielded by their cronies in Washington?

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