Mercs gone wild
The rampaging private armies that guard State Department and CIA personnel in Iraq have finally gone too far to ignore.
On September 16, a Blackwater convoy entered Nisour Square in the Mansour district of Baghdad. Spooked by the sound of a car bomb a quarter mile away, but not under attack from anyone, the guards strafed the cars that had stopped at the side of the street to make way for the convoy. The mercenaries fired not only from beside their armored SUVs but also from one of two 'Little Bird' helicopters overhead onto the cars trapped below, using a grenade launcher to set one car on fire. They killed at least 11 people and wounded 18 more.
As always in these kinds of incidents, Blackwater insisted that they were fired on and that those killed and wounded were "armed enemies", or at best unfortunate victims of a "firefight." But this time there was video, along with the testimony of survivors, Iraqi police, and witnesses in the buildings nearby -- all giving the lie to the killers' story.
The Iraqi government threatened to eject and ban Blackwater from the country. Citing the apparent absence of such an outraged reaction to earlier incidents, Prof. Deborah Avant found the Maliki government's response "puzzling", and put it down to political positioning. My reading was simpler: everyone has a breaking point.
The Iraqi government had been complaining to the State Department for the last year about shooting after shooting, and nothing ever came of it. Ordinary Iraqis seethed with anger, fear, and humiliation at the behavior of the thousand Blackwater mercs always present in and above Baghdad's streets. They drive their black armored SUVs wherever they feel like it, ramming vehicles, knocking over obstacles on the sidewalks, pointing their machine guns and often shooting at anyone who gets too close, and laying down a curtain of fire if they see or hear anything that they interpret as an attack.
Here is a list of some of the most serious incidents of the last year, fewer than half reported in the U.S. press or attributed to Blackwater at the time they occurred:
1. December 18, 2006 - Blackwater team busted out of a Green Zone prison a former government minister convicted of embezzling billions. The prison was overseen jointly by U.S. and Iraqi guards. Former Iraqi Electricity Minister Ahyam al Samarrai was awaiting sentencing on charges that he had embezzled $2.5 billion intended to rebuild Iraq's decrepit electricity grid. The only Iraqi cabinet official convicted of corruption so far, he subsequently was spirited out of the country and is believed to be living in the United States (and is said to have dual U.S.-Iraqi citizenship). This "raises questions about what American officials might have known about the breakout."
2. December 24, 2006 - An off-duty Blackwater guard, drunk after a Christmas party, shot and killed a bodyguard of the Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi in the Green Zone. Blackwater immediately flew him back to the U.S. and says that they fired him. The story broke in the U.S. in mid-January; the company only admitted to it under questioning during a Congressional hearing in early February. The case was referred to the Justice Department, but there have been no charges nor any further reports from an investigation.
3. February 4, 2007 - Blackwater guards were involved in a shooting near the Foreign Ministry, in which Iraqi journalist Hana al-Ameedi died. [She is not in the Reporters sans Frontieres or Committee to Protect Journalists lists for 2007, but if she was shot in traffic by convoy gunspray or as a bystander, she might not make any of the tracking lists.] Update: 12:30 pm, 29 Sept - The name and date above were from the Interior Ministry's list of six incidents. A McClatchy report on what sounds like the same incident says that Suhad Shakir, with the Al Atyaf channel, was shot while driving to work and died outside the Foreign Ministry on February 2. Shakir is not on the RSF or CPJ lists, either.
4. February 7, 2007 - Blackwater operatives shot and killed three guards working for al-Iraqiya TV (government-owned), mistaking them for gunmen intending to attack a delegation guarded by Blackwater that was visiting the Justice Ministry building across the street in the al-Salihiya neighborhood of Baghdad.
5. February 14, 2007 - Blackwater staff smashed the windshields of Iraqis' cars by throwing bottles of ice water at them from their speeding SUV. Update: 12:45 pm 29 Sept - Throwing frozen water bottles appears to be a routine for Blackwater; it shows up in stories about at least four separate incidents, including their own account of the Nisour Square events ("to get the driver's attention").
6. May 24, 2007 - Blackwater guards shot and killed an Iraqi driver outside the Interior Ministry gate who "veered too close to their convoy." The day before, a Blackwater team reportedly came under attack, triggering a furious gun battle involving the security guards, U.S. troops and Apache attack helicopters in Baghdad's municipal center. [I believe at least one bystander was killed in this May 23 incident, too, but can't document that now.]
7. August 2007 - Blackwater guards led a convoy the wrong way down a Baghdad street. When a taxi driver failed to stop quickly enough as the convoy approached, the Blackwater guards opened fire, killing him.
8. September 9 - Killed five people and wounded 10 near the Baghdad municipality building. Update: 28 Sept - Harrowing details:
As Hussein walked out of the customs building, an embassy convoy of sport-utility vehicles drove through the intersection. Blackwater security guards, charged with protecting the diplomats, yelled at construction workers at an unfinished building to move back. Instead, the workers threw rocks. The guards, witnesses said, responded with gunfire, spraying the intersection with bullets.
Hussein, who was on the opposite side of the street from the construction site, fell to the ground, shot in the leg. As she struggled to her feet and took a step, eyewitnesses said, a Blackwater security guard trained his weapon on her and shot her multiple times. She died on the spot, and the customs documents she’d held in her arms fluttered down the street.
9. September 12 - Severely wounded five people on Palestine Street in east Baghdad. [This and the previous two are sourced only to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which cited them among six previous incidents in explaining the government's reaction to the Nisour Square massacre.]
No one who knows, if anyone does, will say how many mercenaries are operating in Iraq. Estimates range from 20,000 (Pentagon) up to 50,000 (Int'l Contractors Assn.) in the close-to-200 private armies of Triple Canopy, DynCorp, Aegis, Custer Battles, Cohort International, Global Strategies, etc. Their behavior is only marginally better than Blackwater's; a video that's circulated on the net for the last two years shows Aegis mercs firing on civilians as they drive down a street. Who could have predicted this kind of behavior from heavily armed foreigners supporting a violent occupation, men who appear to be legally accountable to no one?
That question of accountability is murky at best. Much of the press coverage since the Nisour Square massacre has noted the decree issued by Paul Bremer in the waning days of the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004 that grants full immunity from Iraqi law for private contractors. The Iraqi government has just submitted a bill to its legislature to change that.
Doug Brooks, head of the mercs' trade association (the International Peace Operations Association -- nice Orwellian touch), said last week that private military in Iraq are subject to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice and to "MEJA, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which essentially says that a person working for a contractor can be brought back to the United States and tried for a felony." Presumably that's the basis on which charges could result from the supposed Justice Department investigation into the Christmas eve shooting. I'm not holding my breath.
Nor do I put much stock in anything Brooks says. A Congressional Research Service report this past July found that while mercenaries might technically be subject to the UCMJ, prosecution in military courts would raise constitutional questions, and logistical difficulties might inhibit U.S. civilian courts' ability to bring cases under the MEJA.
Rep. David Price (D-NC) has been trying for some time to bring the private military under federal law and increase oversight. The recent unpleasantness has also stirred rumblings in the Senate, where the defense spending bill is still being amended.
Update: 4:00 pm, Sept 25 - Edited, links and image added.