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.