|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Blackwater USA, an American contractor that provides security to some of the top American officials in Iraq, has been banned from working in the country by the Iraqi government after a shooting that left eight Iraqis dead and involved an American diplomatic convoy.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, said Monday that authorities had canceled the company’s license and that the government would prosecute the participants. But under the rules that govern private security contractors here, the Iraqis do not have the legal authority to do so.
The shooting took place in Baghdad on Sunday, but the details were still unclear, and American officials stopped short of saying whether the Blackwater guards in the diplomatic motorcade had caused any of the deaths. Bombs were going off in the area at the time, and shots were fired at the convoy, American officials said.
“There was a firefight,” said Sean McCormack, the principal State Department spokesman. “We believe some innocent life was lost. Nobody wants to see that. But I can’t tell you who was responsible for that.”
The deaths struck a nerve with Iraqis, who say that private security firms are often quick to shoot and are rarely held responsible for their actions. A law issued by the American authority in Iraq before the United States handed over sovereignty to Iraqis, Order No. 17, gives the companies immunity from Iraqi law. A security expert based in Baghdad said Monday night that the order, issued in 2004, had never been overturned. Like others, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains under official inquiry.
Senior officials, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, expressed outrage.
“This is a big crime that we can’t stay silent in front of,” said Jawad al-Bolani, the interior minister, in remarks on Al Arabiya television. “Anyone who wants to have good relations with Iraq has to respect Iraqis. We apply the law and are committed to it.”
Because Blackwater guards are so central to the American operation here, having provided protection for numerous American ambassadors, it was not clear on Monday whether the United States would agree to end a relationship with a trusted protector so quickly. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker praised private security companies in a speech on Sept. 11, referring to Blackwater by name.
“This incident will be the true test of diplomacy between the State Department and the government of Iraq,” said one American official in Baghdad.
A decade ago, Blackwater barely existed; and yet its "diplomatic security" contracts since mid-2004, with the State Department alone, total more than $750m (£370m). It protects the US ambassador and other senior officials in Iraq as well as visiting Congressional delegations; it trains Afghan security forces, and was deployed in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region, setting up a "command and control" centre just miles from the Iranian border. The company was also hired to protect emergency operations and facilities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where it raked in $240,000 (£120,000) a day from the American taxpayer, billing $950 (£470) a day per Blackwater contractor.
Yet this is still just a fraction of the company's business. It also runs an impressive domestic law-enforcement and military training system inside the US. While some of its competitors may have more forces deployed in more countries around the globe, none have organised their troops and facilities more like an actual military.
At present, Blackwater has forces deployed in nine countries and boasts a database of 21,000 additional troops at the ready, a fleet of more than 20 aircraft, including helicopter gun-ships, and the world's largest private military facility - a 7,000-acre compound in North Carolina. It recently opened a new facility in Illinois (Blackwater North) and is fighting local opposition to a third planned domestic facility near San Diego (Blackwater West) by the Mexican border. It is also manufacturing an armoured vehicle (nicknamed the Grizzly) and surveillance blimps.
The man behind this empire is 38-year-old Erik Prince, a secretive, conservative Christian who once served with the US Navy's special forces and has made major campaign contributions to President Bush and his allies. Among Blackwater's senior executives are J Cofer Black, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA; Robert Richer, former deputy director of operations at the CIA; Joseph Schmitz, former Pentagon inspector general; and an impressive array of other retired military and intelligence officials. Company executives recently announced the creation of a new private intelligence company, Total Intelligence, to be headed by Black and Richer. Blackwater executives boast that some of their work for the government is so sensitive that the company cannot tell one federal agency what it is doing for another.
In many ways, Blackwater's rapid ascent to prominence within the US war machine symbolises what could be called Bush's mercenary revolution. Much has been made of the administration's "failure" to build international consensus for the invasion of Iraq, but perhaps that was never the intention. Almost from the beginning, the White House substituted international diplomacy with lucrative war contracts. When US tanks rolled into Iraq in March 2003, they brought with them the largest army of "private contractors" ever deployed in a war.