The fallout continues from the deadly rampage by Blackwater mercenaries against Iraqi civilians on September 16 that left at least 11 Iraqis dead. Blackwater insists that their employees fired in response to coming under attack. The Iraqis claim the Blackwater personnel were unprovoked when they opened fire on civilians at a busy traffic circle while escorting a State Department convoy through Baghdad.
The September 16 incident set off a firestorm and at one point the government of Iraq said all Blackwater personnel had to leave the country and the company had to cease operating inside Iraq. This edict did not stand and Blackwater is once again roaming the streets, terrifying the populace with their mere presence and undermining whatever the hell it is the mission is supposed to be, and sowing seeds of hostility with the populace that prompt attacks against all Americans, thereby putting American G.I.’s at heightened risk.
The DoD on Wednesday announced that the Pentagon has sent a team of investigators to Iraq to probe security contractors and their operations in Iraq. In addition, a memo was sent to the commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan reminding them that they have the prerogative to court martial mercenaries working under contract with the U.S. military if/when those mercenaries violate the Rules of Engagement that govern the U.S. military. Gates wanted to make sure that the mercenaries and commanders all understood that the military can prosecute their contractors. Gates, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, on Wednesday said he also wanted to know whether the military has the resources to investigate private security personnel under contract with the DoD for alleged crimes. “My concern is whether there has been sufficient accountability and oversight,” Gates said.
In the memo, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told military commanders that they’re responsible for monitoring contractors under their control and charging those who violate rules of engagement.
“Commanders have UCMJ (Uniformed Code of Military Justice) authority to disarm, apprehend, and detain DoD contractors suspected of having committed a felony offense in violation of the RUF (Rules on the Use of Force),” Gordon wrote. The memo was dated Tuesday.
England said commanders should review contractors’ standard operating procedures and make any necessary changes to the way they authorize force to “minimize the risk of innocent civilian causalities or unnecessary destruction of civilian property.”
The State Department hasn’t distributed a similar memo, and it is unclear what, if any, U.S. law applies to the actions of its contractors.
So far, no Defense Department contractor has been charged under U.S. law, and no security contracts have been suspended for violations, Morrell said.
Yeah. It really is as thoroughly and completely screwed up as it sounds.
Four and a half years into Iraq, and six years into Afghanistan, they have decided it’s time to determine what, exactly, to do with mercenaries who attack and murder civilians without provocation, or otherwise commit actions that undermine the efforts of the United States to salvage something – anything – from this fiasco so we can claim some sort of semblance of a shadow of a specter of a pale imitation of victory™ and get the hell out of there.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry has sent the investigation of the incident to a magistrate and is looking at possible criminal charges, although they may be hamstrung by the ghost of Paul Bremer and the CPA, in the form of Order 17, which essentially gave mercenaries immunity to run amok, unencumbered by the rule of law. Under Order 17, mercenaries can kill at will, with little or no fear of legal, or even civil, repercussions.
This week, Iraqi lawmakers began considering a proposal that would withdraw the provisions of Order 17 from Iraqi law and make security contractors/mercenaries accountable under the Iraqi system of justice. Iraqis have complained bitterly for years that the mercenary army is unnecessarily aggressive and damages property with impunity and mistreats and kills Iraqis with reckless abandon.
Point of Clarification: The mercenaries involved in the September 16 violence were under contract to the State Department, and that incident is under joint Iraqi – State Department investigation. DoD has no authority to investigate or try the Blackwater mercenaries involved. Gates, being competent, and not beholden to nor under the sway of Cheney or Bush, is looking for problems before someone else finds them and uses them against him. (I don’t like the man, but I can not help but respect the talent). At State, on the other hand, the inept and outpaced Condi is still carrying her bosses water, overtly and contemptuously stonewalling congressional oversight into the incident. While the DoD does have contracts with Blackwater, the State Department outspends the DoD on Blackwater contracts at a rate of approximately 8:1.
The private-army aspect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been controversial since the first days in Afghanistan, and there has been no shortage of animosity between the professional military and the mercenary army. To date, no personnel under DoD contract have been charged under U.S. law, and no contracts have been suspended for violations. The military has been taken to task though. Two Air Force officers were brought up on charges of assault and conduct unbecoming following a run-in between the officers and Blackwater personnel on a road outside Kabul in September 2006. The charges were later dismissed.
The bloodletting two weeks ago has set up a clash between the Pentagon and the State Department. The tensions have been long-simmering, and the events of September 16 turned up the heat. “The military is very sensitive to its relationship that they’ve built with the Iraqis being altered or even severely degraded by actions such as this event,” said one senior military official in Iraq. “This is a nightmare. We had guys who saw the aftermath, and it was very bad. This is going to hurt us badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib, and it comes at a time when we’re trying to have an impact for the long term.”
In interviews involving a dozen U.S. military and government officials, many expressed anger and concern over the shootings in Nisoor Square, in Baghdad’s Mansour neighborhood. Some worried it could undermine the military’s efforts to stabilize Iraq this year with an offensive involving thousands of reinforcements.
“This is a big mess that I don’t think anyone has their hands around yet,” said another U.S. military official. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing these guys are being held accountable. Iraqis hate them, the troops don’t particularly care for them, and they tend to have a know-it-all attitude, which means they rarely listen to anyone — even the folks that patrol the ground on a daily basis.”
Most officials spoke on condition of anonymity because there are at least three ongoing investigations of Blackwater’s role in the shootings. There are also sensitive discussions between various U.S. agencies and the Iraqi government over the future of Blackwater and other private security firms in Iraq.
Teddy Spain, a retired Army Colonel was willing to speak on the record. “I personally was concerned about any of the civilians running around on the battlefield during my time there. My main concern was their lack of accountability when things went wrong.”
Several commanding officers spoke frankly on condition of anonymity.
…”Given their record of recklessness,” said the senior U.S. commander, “I’m not sure any senior military officer here would want responsibility for them.”
…”They are immature shooters and have very quick trigger fingers. Their tendency is shoot first and ask questions later,” said an Army lieutenant colonel serving in Iraq. Referring to the Sept. 16 shootings, the officer added, “None of us believe they were engaged, but we are all carrying their black eyes.”
…”Many of my peers think Blackwater is oftentimes out of control,” said a senior U.S. commander serving in Iraq. “They often act like cowboys over here . . . not seeming to play by the same rules everyone else tries to play by.”
…”Many of us feel that when Blackwater and other groups conduct military missions, they should be subject to the same controls under which the Army operates,” said Marc Lindemann, who served in Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division and is now an officer in the New York National Guard and a state prosecutor.
…”The deaths of contractors from Blackwater helped precipitate the debacle in Fallujah in 2004 and now the loss of Blackwater is causing disruptions in the war effort in 2007,” a military intelligence officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Why are we creating new vulnerabilities by relying on what are essentially mercenary forces?”
The lousy reputation Blackwater has among members of the U.S. military has led to renewed debate over whether the DoD should handle State’s security contracts. The Department of Defense (understanding what security protocols should involve) has a more strident procedure for licensing and oversight of personnel under contract to their agency, the DoD also has more detailed incident reporting procedures when weapons are discharged. In addition, the military investigates promptly when incidents occur or allegations are made against mercenaries in their employ.
A Pentagon source insisted that “We are really making State respond, conduct an investigation and come up with recommendations.” The source said that in Washington the atmosphere surrounding the confrontation between State and the pentagon is calm and professional but, referring to Iraq, said, “There is probably a bit more emotion going on in theater.”
As if Blackwater needed another revelation (they are also under investigation for smuggling weapons into Iraq that ultimately ended up pointed at American G.I.’s) the New York Times reported Thursday that mercenaries from Blackwater USA have been involved in a far higher rate of shootings while guarding and escorting American diplomats than other companies providing comparable services.
The rate of Blackwater violence is at least twice that of DynCorp International and Triple Canopy, the other security companies operating in Iraq. Blackwater’s hired guns are just that, discharging weapons, on average, twice every convoy. (The other companies frequently escort convoys completely without incident.)
“You can find any number of people, particularly in uniform, who will tell you that they do see Blackwater as a company that promotes a much more aggressive response to things than other main contractors do,” a senior American official said. “Is it the operating environment or something specific about Blackwater?” asked one government official. “My best guess is that it is both.”
While the bloody rampage at the Nisour traffic roundabout was the most shocking in the level of wanton killing, the modern-day Pinkerton’s of Blackwater are under investigation in six other episodes that left ten people dead and at least 15 wounded.
Slowly, American officials are accepting the position that Blackwater’s behavior in Iraq is counterproductive to the stated ‘mission’ by fueling resentment among the local population.
“They’re repeat offenders, and yet they continue to prosper in Iraq,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who has been broadly critical of the role of contractors in Iraq. “It’s really affecting attitudes toward the United States when you have these cowboy guys out there. These guys represent the U.S. to them and there are no rules of the game for them.”
Secretary of Defense Gates was in front of Congress asking for $190 Billion for the war effort for FY 2008. Congress is hammering out the budget now.
While the American public may not yet be ready to cut off funding to the U.S. military for the occupation of Iraq, I seriously doubt that there would be great wailing and bleating and rending of cloth and gnashing of teeth if, just for starters, the monies in the budget allotted to Blackwater fell victim to Congresses one true power.