For once I take no joy in saying it, but I told you so. In a post titled, Criminal, Unaccountable, and Tax Financed, I wrote, "...In this war, in our time, there are more than soldiers on the ground in Iraq. Private contractors, who aren't governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and who, according to the Associated Press, "are exempt from prosecution by Iraqis for crimes committed there," also exist there. The only real check on these people are the fact that they can be fired. Technically, they're supposed to provide security, but they act as far more than rent-a-cops. They are a collection of private armies."
One of those private armies was caught doing what they do best -- running amuck and acting like the lawless paramilitary thugs they are. After a car bombing, Blackwater USA employees shot and killed eight iraqi civilians. It's not extremely surprising. Blackwater's mission is to protect diplomats and, by extension, themselves. Where the US military is required to use force judiciously (at least, in theory), Blackwater uses it as a first resort. Columnist Johann Hari gives us two examples in a piece in the Independent:
Yas Ali Mohammed Yassiri was a peaceful 19-year-old Iraqi trying to get on with an ordinary life in a deeply unordinary Baghdad when he boarded a taxi on his street in the Masbah neighbourhood. The mercenaries guarding the US embassy spokesman in Baghdad drove around the corner, so Ali's taxi slowed down - but the convoy opened fire anyway, to clear their path. Ali was hit in the throat and died immediately. Although the US embassy now admits the convoy "opened fire prematurely", the mercenaries were merely sent home; they are free, happy men.
In April 2004, mercenaries working for a private militia named Blackwater were guarding US occupation headquarters in Najaf when a protest by Shia Iraqi civilians began to stir outside. According to the Washington Post and eyewitnesses, Blackwater opened fire on the protesters, unleashing so many rounds so rapidly they had to pause every 15 minutes to allow their gun barrels to cool down. A video of this attack made it on to the Web, where a mercenary can be seen describing the Iraqis they are gunning down as "fuckin' niggers".
The thing that gets me is that these stories aren't all that hard to find. I didn't go out looking for the very worst examples, Hari's were just the first from a reliable source I came across. I don't have time to post every incident I could find -- there are just too many. Needless to say, the latest Blackwater crime was not an isolated incident, but it was just the last straw. Iraqis have had it with them. And it's one of many, many reasons why we've lost the war for iraqi hearts and minds. Firms like Blackwater are a big part of the reason that we're making more enemies than friends.
Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Tuesday demanded the ouster of all "criminal" foreign security companies from Iraq after private contractors gunned down civilians in a Baghdad square.
"We say the Iraqi government should cancel the licence of this company and all other criminal companies," Sadr said in a statement issued from his headquarters in the holy city of Najaf.
"Most of (Blackwater's) members are criminals and those who have left American jails," the statement said.
OK, I call BS on that last part, but it's Moqtada al-Sadr we're talking about here -- what do you expect? And, from the iraqi perspective, it sure would be easy to believe.
This incident is also a test of how seriously we take the iraqi government and iraqi sovereignty. Iraq announced it would expel Blackwater, but the Associated Press reported at the time, "[I]t was unlikely the United States would agree to abandon a security company that plays such a critical role in American operations in Iraq." In other words, the iraqi government wouldn't be allowed to actually govern.
As a result, the story's already changing. Before, Blackwater was gone, gone, gone from Iraq. Now, AP reports, "The Iraqi government said Tuesday that a ban on Blackwater USA was not permanent but warned it planned to review the immunity enjoyed by some private security companies following a fatal shooting of civilians near a State Department convoy."
Well, that little expression of iraqi self-government was short-lived, wasn't it?
If we don't allow the iraqi government to permanently expel Blackwater -- and it looks like we haven't -- then the iraqi government is exposed as a sham, a puppet government that does only what we allow it to.
But, with Bush's escalation supposedly winding down, it may be that the administration is relying more and more on these mercenaries to make up the difference. If the choice comes down to pretending that the iraqi government really runs Iraq or telling them to screw off so we can continue our occupation, you don't have to be psychic to guess which course Bush will take.
The State Dept. and the iraqi government promises a full and transparent investigation, but that's not very likely to mollify the iraqi people. They've seen investigations, they've even seen people go to prison, but one thing they haven't seen as a result of investigation and trials is any change at all on the streets. Life in Iraq sucks just as much the day after an investigation as it did the day before. Blackwater's not the problem, the US military's not the problem, the war is the problem.
Until the war is over, nothing we do -- whether it's allowing iraqis to put Blackwater employees on trial or doing an investigation ourselves -- will change a damned thing. The US will still be there and, to iraqis, the US is the problem.