Making sense of the Iraq war and Blackwater
Virginian Pilot (2007-09-30) Joanne Kimberlin
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Could it get any worse for Blackwater?
By JOANNE KIMBERLIN, The Virginian-Pilot
© September 30, 2007
Last updated: 4:07 PM
Over the past two weeks, the paramilitary company in Hampton Roads’ backyard has been accused of slaughtering civilians, smuggling arms, stonewalling Congress, complicating the war and, quite possibly, causing a lethal fracture in the wobbly Iraqi government.
The company is used to being mistrusted in some quarters – blamed for everything from the sinister to the just plain bizarre.
An anti-Blackwater crusader in California believes the company staged O.J. Simpson’s latest arrest to deflect attention from the Sept. 16 Baghdad shooting that left 11 Iraqis dead.
A Virginia Beach woman calls the newspaper regularly to complain that Blackwater is controlling her mind and body – right down to her visits to the bathroom.
But that stuff is the least of Blackwater USA’s problems, especially in the shadow of Sept. 16. Exactly what happened in Nisoor Square has yet to be sorted out.
In the meantime, Blackwater tries to fight its way out of a free fall.
Anne Tyrrell, Blackwater’s spokeswoman, said the company is “just trying to make sense of it all.”
So are a lot of other people.
Why is Blackwater such a big deal to Hampton Roads?
Blackwater’s 7,000-acre home base is in Moyock, N.C., just 30 minutes south of downtown Norfolk. Some 500 full-timers are on the payroll – most of them local. Many of our military personnel and local law enforcement train there. Some police officers moonlight there as well.
Is Blackwater the biggest contractor in Iraq?
No. Roughly 180,000 private workers are in Iraq, doing everything from serving meals to building roads, under a patchwork of contracts. About 60 companies provide armed guards for the U.S. government, but oversight is so foggy that estimates of their numbers range anywhere from 20,000 to almost 50,000. The bulk of Blackwater’s men work for the State Department and number around 1,000.
So why are they always in the news?
Some say it’s because of their aggressiveness. The company escorts thousands of diplomatic convoys a year out of the fortified Green Zone, each carrying a “high-value principal.” In the open, convoys roll at 100 mph-plus, bristling with firepower. In crowded streets, guards “use their machine guns like car horns,” according to Robert Pelton, an author and adventurer who spent a month hanging out with Blackwater in Iraq.
Blackwater also stands out for its distinctly “American” face. Most Western companies operating in Iraq hire as many locals as possible, since they work cheaper, followed by third-country nationals from Fiji, Chile and the like.
Blackwater’s diplomatic work requires special security clearance, which often means hiring at home. Of 987 Blackwater contractors working in Iraq in July, 744 were American.
How effective are Blackwater’s tactics?
Blackwater has never lost a client. Its tough tactics, however, tend to rub locals the wrong way. Hard feelings were reaching a critical mass before the latest shooting. In the weeks prior, according to Matthew Degn, a former senior American adviser to Iraq’s Interior Ministry, the ministry was a “powder keg” of anger toward Blackwater.
Blackwater says it needs to be aggressive to do its job. The company has lost 27 contractors in Iraq, more than any other major security outfit, according to Bloomberg News.
Are Blackwater contractors trigger-happy?
Iraqis say they are. The Interior Ministry is pointing to at least six other incidents in which it says Blackwater used excessive force. According to the ministry’s count, in an eight-day period that included the Nisoor shooting, Blackwater shot a total of 43 Iraqis, killing 16.
So far this year, according to numbers released last week by the State Department, Blackwater contractors have fired their guns during 56 of their 1,873 escort missions. According to a report in The New York Times, that’s twice the rate of the two other security companies that provide similar services to the department.
Does Blackwater get special treatment?
According to recent reports in The Washington Post, Blackwater’s work makes it exempt from numerous requirements the military imposes on other contractors, including restrictions on the use of weapons and rules for reporting shootings.
After Sept. 16, when the Iraqi government tried to pull the company’s license to work in the country, it was surprised to find that Blackwater has been operating for years without one.
How has the company changed the course of the war?
First came Fallujah, in March 2004, where four Blackwater contractors were killed after stumbling into a hornet’s nest of insurgents. The hanging of their burnt bodies from a bridge drew harsh payback from the Marines – a retaliation largely thought to have intensified the insurgency that has bedeviled Iraq ever since.
Now, in Baghdad, on the other end of the gun barrel, the company’s contractors have unleashed long-simmering resentment among ordinary Iraqis and become the crux of a standoff between the United States and a fledgling government trying to assert its independence.
What’s the ripple effect?
In the United States, a public outcry is forcing the government to rethink its unprecedented reliance on private contractors. The shooting has become fodder for White House hopefuls, grist for the anti-war movement and ammunition for those who oppose Blackwater’s expansion plans in other states.
In Iraq, the incident gave Muqtada al- Sadr – a radical Shiite known for his anti-U.S. fervor – an excuse to withdraw his faction from the coalition trying to govern the country. There is concern that al-Sadr’s pullout has the potential to collapse the fragile alliance and plunge the nation further down the path toward civil war.
Any chance the contractors will go to trial in Iraq?
Foreign contractors fall into a legal no-man’s land where no one is sure who – if anyone – has the authority to punish them. The Iraqis have drafted legislation to fix that, but it wouldn’t be retroactive and would not apply to this incident.
Still, Iraq’s Interior Ministry continues to insist that the contractors will face Iraqi justice.
“I would be shocked beyond belief if that were allowed to happen,” said Deborah Avant, a University of California at Irvine professor who has written a book about the private military industry.
Nations are often unwilling to hand their citizens over to a legal system they’re unsure of. Doug Brooks, president of a trade group that represents companies like Blackwater, said they might not get a fair trial.
“They’ll hang them,” Brooks said.
What’s this about an arms-smuggling investigation?
Federal investigators won’t officially confirm an investigation, but letters between a congressional committee and the State Department refer to an inquiry that is clearly focusing on Blackwater for “illegally smuggling weapons into Iraq.”
Some newspapers have linked that investigation with another case from a couple of years ago. In 2005, Blackwater fired two employees for stealing guns from its Moyock compound. The men pleaded guilty and are now, according to one report, cooperating with authorities in their investigation of the company.
Prosecutors are trying to determine if Blackwater had the proper permits to ship weapons and other military-type gear to Iraq and whether the company has permits for dozens of automatic weapons used at its compound.
There are also reports that weapons found in the hands of the PKK, a Turkish Kurd group labeled as a terrorist organization by the United States, may somehow be linked to Blackwater.
“Say whatever you will about Blackwater,” said Tyrrell, the company’s spokeswoman, “allegations that the company would export arms to sell them is about as outrageous as any made. Why would we sell weapons to people trying to kill us?”
Does Blackwater still have any fans?
No one in the State Department is complaining about Blackwater – at least not publicly. And lots of folks who have rubbed elbows with the company describe its men – mostly military veterans – as professional and patriotic.
Even Pelton, who saw plenty of Blackwater bravado while riding in its convoys, doesn’t believe the worst about Nisoor Square.
“The Blackwater guys are not fools,” he told T he Associated Press. “If they were gunning down people it was because they felt it was the beginning of an ambush.”
In January, when two Blackwater helicopters crashed under fire, killing five contractors, then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the men “represented the best of America, showing valor and courage in the work they did each day.”
Is Blackwater through?
No. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, an independent think tank, has studied the private military for a decade. The latest Blackwater incident prompted him to release a report about the impact of contractors.
Blackwater is the main character in the report, titled “Can’t Win With ’Em, Can’t Go To War Without ’Em.” Singer thinks the company will recover.
“Blackwater has been involved in a number of episodes that can’t be described as positive,” he said, “yet they continue to get contracts. So this might not be a barrier to more business. ”
Nailing one company to the wall, Singer said, isn’t the solution anyway.
“We need to go back to the drawing board on the whole industry,” he said. “It’s not a matter of politics or private interests. It’s a matter of national security.”
Staff writer Bill Sizemore and Mc Clatchy News Service contributed to this report.
Joanne Kimberlin, (757) 446-2338, email@example.com
© 2007 Hampton Roads