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A look at the Blackwater controversy in Iraq (2007)

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Dec. 2, 2007.

The word "mercenary," meaning a solider for hire, usually has negative associations because such a soldier is often presumed to kill primarily for money rather than allegiance to a government, and because he is often not subject to codes of military law and ethics. As such, Blackwater Worldwide (formerly Blackwater USA), which supplements the U.S. military in Iraq, does not refer to its soldiers as mercenaries. Jeremy Scahill noted in "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army" (2007) that journalists fall prey to a "very sophisticated rebranding campaign" when they "refer to these shadowy forces as 'civilian contractors' or 'foreign reconstruction workers' as though they were engineers, construction workers, humanitarians, or water specialists." (p. xxvi)

Part of the reason Iraq is such a dangerous place today, spurring the work of companies like Blackwater, is the hasty and fumbled decision-making that occurred during and shortly after the invasion. When L. Paul Bremer III arrived in Iraq in May 2003 to serve as the post-invasion administrative authority, he said, "Occupation is an ugly word. But it is a fact." (Scahill, p. 64) Bremer's initial actions have become subjects of controversy. His "Order 1" consisted in firing state workers, including teachers and doctors, who had been affiliated with Saddam's Baath party. Doing business under Saddam's regime necessitated affiliation with the Baath party, so virtually all experienced workers were fired, whether they truly sympathized with Saddam or not. Bremer's "Order 2" was to fire the 400,000 men in Saddam's army, which instantly generated hostility towards the U.S. occupation for a large number of newly unemployed Iraqi men who were trained in firearms. One analyst has said that paying these men for one year, so that they could have continued to feed their families, would only have cost the equivalent of what the U.S. pays to occupy the country for three days.

Guarding the life of this administrator was Blackwater's unenviable job. Just before leaving the country in 2004, Bremer issued "Order 17" which gave the mercenaries, on whom his life depended, immunity from prosecution. (Scahill p. xx) A New York Times story on Oct. 11, 2007 quoted Bremer as claiming that "the immunity is not absolute" and that mercenaries must "respect all Iraqi laws."

The U.S. military in Iraq is bound by American military law [the Uniform Code of Military Justice], but mercenaries for the US in Iraq are not necessarily bound by any law-especially when they are hired by the U.S. State Dept., which is a civilian agency. No mercenary has been prosecuted for any crime during the current occupation, although about 100,000 contractors currently work for the US in Iraq. Scott Horton, a Columbia University lecturer, complained about this absurdity in the New York Times (Oct. 11, 2007): "Imagine a town of 100,000 people, and there hasn't been a prosecution in three years." Horton said he thinks the best chance for a legal tool to hold mercenaries accountable is the Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.

Blackwater soldiers are placed at great risk. One of the most gruesome images of U.S. fatalities during the occupation in Iraq was etched in memory on March 31, 2004, when four Blackwater soldiers drove through Fallujah. Machine-gun fire tore through their jeeps, and a mob of three hundred people dragged the dead soldiers out of the burning cars and tore off their limbs. Their charred torsos were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates river. Blackwater still argues that the estates and lawyers of the dead mercenaries cannot speak to the press about the company, because the mercenaries themselves had signed a contract that they would not do so (New York Times, Oct. 31, 2007).

Iraq remains a dangerous place for diplomats, too, even with an extensive U.S. military and mercenary presence. As of July 2007, the American Foreign Service Association memorial plaques in Washington had inscribed five names of U.S. State Dept. employees who died during foreign service in Iraq. These include: James Mollen, Edward Seitz, Barbara Heald, Keith Taylor, and Stephen Sullivan. Diplomats from other nations and the UN have also been killed.

The most devastating incident for Blackwater public relations involved the slaughter of Iraqi civilians. On Sept. 16, 2007, Blackwater soldiers opened fire in Nusoor Square in Baghdad, killing 17 civilians, including women and children. The next day, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki requested that Blackwater leave the country. Subsequent investigations by Iraq and by the U.S. FBI concluded that the killings were unjustified. Despite al-Maliki's insistence that Blackwater leave, 845 Blackwater guards were still assigned to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq at the end of October 2007 (New York Times, Oct. 31, 2007).

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