Does Iraq have authority to expel Blackwater?

Blackwater security guards who protect US diplomats in Iraq have been involved in at least seven serious incidents—including some which resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians—Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Sept. 19. The revelation came as al-Maliki announced he has revoked the firm’s license to operate in Iraq while US and Iraqi officials investigate the Sept. 16 shooting that Iraqi officials now say left at least 11 people dead. Blackwater characterized the incident as an ambush, but survivors and witnesses described it as an unprovoked shooting spree.

Al-Maliki didn’t detail the other incidents. But Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari told McClatchy Newspapers that one of the incidents was former Iraqi Electricity Minister Ahyam al-Samarrai’s escape from a Green Zone prison in December. Samarrai had been awaiting sentencing on charges that he had embezzled $2.5 billion.

Another incident, Askari said, was the shooting death last month of a Baghdad taxi driver when Blackwater guards led a convoy the wrong way down a street. When the taxi driver failed to stop quickly enough as the convoy approached, the Blackwater guards opened fire, Askari said.

“This company must be called to account for these violations, because we don’t allow them to kill Iraqi citizens in cold blood,” al-Maliki said. “The people and the Iraqi government are filled with anger and hatred after this crime.”

US Embassy officials remained silent on the circumstances of the Sept. 16 shooting. Without security details, US officials remain banned from traveling outside the Green Zone. But under a regulation issued by the US authority that governed Iraq until 2004, US security companies and their employees are not subject to Iraqi law.

“All these things are not acceptable,” Askari said. “Maybe this will force them to reassess their work with such companies.” (McClatchy, Sept. 19)

In another move sure to antagonize Iraqis, charges against the commander of a Marine unit accused of killing 24 Iraqi men, women and children in Haditha nearly two years ago were dismissed Sept. 18. Capt. Lucas M. McConnell was charged late last year with two counts of failing to properly investigate and report a Nov. 19, 2005, incident that also left one Marine dead. McConnell, commander of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, has been given immunity in the case and is expected to testify. He was not present in Haditha when a roadside bomb struck a Marine convoy or during the ensuing house-to-house fighting in which the civilians were killed. But he was one of four officers and four enlisted Marines from a Camp Pendleton-based battalion originally charged Dec. 21, 2006, in the Haditha incident. The officers were accused of failing to investigate how the Iraqi civilians died, while the enlisted men were charged with their murder. (AFP, San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 19)

Will this represent the turning point, with Iraq’s official leadership finally breaking with the US and throwing their lot in with Iran? If so, now the war really begins…

Note that Blackwater recruits mercenaries for Iraq in Latin America‘s former and current war zones, drawing scrutiny form human rights organizations. Ominously, Blackwater was also dispatched to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

See our last posts on Iraq and US atrocities.

  1. Iraq: sniper acquitted
    A military panel convening in Camp Liberty, Iraq, Sept. 28 acquitted US Army Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval on charges he killed two unarmed Iraqis, but convicted him of planting evidence on one of the men in attempt to make look like an insurgent. Sandoval, 22, of Laredo, TX, had faced five charges in the April and May deaths of two unidentified men. From the New York Times, Sept. 29:

    Specialist Sandoval has admitted killing the man after his team leader, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, ordered him to fire. The man, who was cutting grass in a field using a scythe when Specialist Sandoval killed him, had been considered by the sniper team’s leaders to be an insurgent trying to disguise himself as a farmer after battling Iraqi Army soldiers minutes earlier.

    Army prosecutors argued the killing was illegal because the man, aside from the rusty scythe, was unarmed at the time and was not demonstrating hostile intent or a hostile act when Specialist Sandoval killed him with one shot.

    The other killing, on May 11, was of a man who had inadvertently walked into the concealed location where Specialist Sandoval, Sergeant Hensley and three other snipers were located, near a water pumping house close to Iskandariya. Prosecutors had charged Specialist Sandoval with premeditated murder for that killing because he did nothing to stop another sniper, Sgt. Evan Vela, from shooting the man at close range.

    1. Sgt. Vela convicted
      From AP, Feb. 10:

      BAGHDAD — A U.S. Army sniper convicted of killing an unarmed Iraqi civilian and planting evidence on his body has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

      Sergeant Evan Vela faced a possible life sentence after jurors on a court-martial panel in Baghdad found him guilty of unpremeditated murder earlier in the day.

      Vela was also sentenced to forfeit all pay and allowances and will receive a dishonorable discharge. His case is automatically referred to a military appeals court.

      The defense claimed the killing was an accident and that Vela was suffering from acute sleep deprivation and exhaustion at the time.

      In addition to the murder-without-premeditation conviction, Vela was also found guilty of making a false official statement and of conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.

      Two other snipers charged in the case were acquitted of murder but convicted of planting evidence.

  2. Blackwater road warriors terrorize Iraq’s highways
    Gee, way to win hearts and minds, Blackwater. This really says it all, doesn’t it? A commentary from the Los Angeles Times, Oct. 6:

    I survived Blackwater
    A former U.S. official received the security company’s services—and witnessed its disregard for Iraqi lives.

    by Janessa Gans

    When the Iraqi government last month demanded the expulsion of Blackwater USA, the private security firm, I had one reaction: It’s about time.

    As a U.S. official in Baghdad for nearly two years, I was frequently the “beneficiary” of Blackwater’s over-the-top zeal. “Just pretend it’s a roller coaster,” I used to tell myself during trips through downtown Baghdad.

    We would careen around corners, jump road dividers, reach speeds in excess of 100 mph and often cross over to the wrong side of the street, oncoming traffic be damned.

    But much more appalling than the ride was the deleterious effect each movement through town had on the already beleaguered people of Iraq. I began to wonder whether my meetings, intended to further U.S. policy goals and improve the lives of Iraqis, were doing more harm than good. With our drivers honking at, cutting off, pelting with water bottles (a favorite tactic) and menacing with weapons anyone in their way, how many enemies were we creating?

    One particularly infuriating time, I was in the town of Irbil in northern Iraq, being driven to a meeting with a Kurdish political leader. We were on a narrow stretch of highway with no shoulders and foot-high barriers on both sides. The lead Suburban in our convoy loomed up behind an old, puttering sedan driven by an older man with a young woman and three children.

    As we approached at typical breakneck speed, the Blackwater driver honked furiously and motioned to the side, as if they should pull over. The kids in the back seat looked back in horror, mouths agape at the sight of the heavily armored Suburbans driven by large, armed men in dark sunglasses. The poor Iraqi driver frantically searched for a means of escape, but there was none. So the lead Blackwater vehicle smashed heedlessly into the car, pushing it into the barrier. We zoomed by too quickly to notice if anyone was hurt.

    Until that point I had never mentioned anything to my drivers about their tactics, but this time I could not contain myself.

    “Where do you all expect them to go?” I shrieked. “It was an old guy and a family, for goodness’ sake. Was it necessary for them to destroy their poor old car?”

    My driver responded impassively: “Ma’am, we’ve been trained to view anyone as a potential threat. You don’t know who they might use as decoys or what the risks are. Terrorists could be disguised as anyone.”

    “Well, if they weren’t terrorists before, they certainly are now!” I retorted. Sulking in my seat, I was stunned by the driver’s indifference.

    The Iraqis with whom I dealt quickly learned to differentiate between the U.S. military and private contractors. The military has established rules of engagement, plus it is required to pay compensation for damages (though it is a difficult and bureaucratic process). Blackwater seemed to have no such rules, paid no compensation and, per long-standing Coalition Provisional Authority fiat, had immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.

    As we do the work of bridge building and improving our host citizens’ lives, if the people providing our transportation and security are antagonizing, angering and even killing the people we are putatively trying to help, our entire mission is undermined.

    Janessa Gans, a visiting political science professor at Principia College, was a U.S. official in Iraq from 2003 to 2005.