Monday, September 17, 2007

Banishing Blackwater

Is Iraq ready to take responsibility for its own governance and provide their citizens with sufficient security to enable returning to everyday matters of work and family? These are the questions that occupy both politicians and pundits whenever the issue of troop withdrawal is raised. Today the Iraqi interior ministry took what may prove to be a significant step in asserting that responsibility and declaring a self-determination that is independent of the interests of some of the non-Iraqi forces that have ostensibly been acting on the country's behalf. Here is the lead of the story, as it was reported on the BBC NEWS Web site:

Iraq has cancelled the licence of the private security firm, Blackwater USA, after it was involved in a gunfight in which at least eight civilians died.

The Iraqi interior ministry said the contractor, based in North Carolina, was now banned from operating in Iraq.

The Blackwater workers, who were contracted by the US state department, apparently opened fire after coming under attack in Baghdad on Sunday.

Blackwater has attracted considerable attention in the world of investigative journalism for both the breadth and depth (in this case "elevation" may be a better word) of the work it is currently doing under contract in Iraq. Much of that attention has been directed that the fact that the State Department is one of Blackwater's "prime" customers. Since the security of overseas State Department facilities has usually been handled by the military, this has raised any number of questions regarding both the need and the desirability of outsourcing such a critical aspect of government operations. As the lead paragraphs suggest, it was the State Department contract that led to the incident resulting in the gunfight. Here are the details as provided by the BBC:

The convoy carrying officials from the US state department came under attack at about 1230 local time on Sunday as it passed through Nisoor Square in the predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Mansour.

The Blackwater security guards "opened fire randomly at citizens" after mortars landed near their vehicles, killing eight people and wounding 13 others, interior ministry officials said.

Most of the dead and wounded were bystanders, the officials added. One of those killed was a policeman.

A spokeswoman for the US embassy in Baghdad later confirmed there had been an incident in which state department security personnel reacted to a car bomb "in the proximity", and that they had been shot at.

"We are taking it very seriously indeed," she told the BBC, adding that discussions were still taking place about Blackwater's status now that they had been ordered to leave.

When asked if Blackwater was complying with the order, the spokeswoman said she could not comment because the investigation into the incident was still in progress.

The BBC's Hugh Sykes in Baghdad says it is generally assumed that Iraqi courts have no authority over foreign private security contractors.

However, the US embassy spokeswoman said the question of their immunity from prosecution was "one of the many issues" raised by the incident.

Blackwater has not yet commented on the incident.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi side of the story does not seem to recognize any sort of immunity surrounding this incident:

he interior ministry's director of operations, Maj Gen Abdul Karim Khalaf, said authorities would prosecute any foreign contractors found to have used excessive force.

"We have opened a criminal investigation against the group who committed the crime," he told the AFP [Agence France-Presse] news agency.

All Blackwater personnel have been told to leave Iraq immediately, with the exception of the men involved in the incident on Sunday.

They will have to remain in the country and stand trial, the ministry said.

This is, of course, the beginning of a story, rather than its conclusion. There is sure to be a fair amount of jawboning (and probably horse-trading) before those Blackwater personnel pack up and leave "immediately." Nevertheless, this is a major assertion of internal responsibility on the part of the Iraqi government, the sort of responsibility that we teach our children goes hand-in-hand with the democratic process. If Iraq is now committed to moving in the direction that we have said we wanted them to go, we had better be careful about any actions that might impede their progress!

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