Lawless

September 28, 2007

Aprivate enterprise, absolutely free of any sort of regulation - that's the emerging new look of war in the 21st century. Without the tens of thousands of foreign private security guards in Iraq - heavily armed, quick on the trigger, answerable to no one, and handsomely compensated in the bargain - there actually couldn't be a war in Iraq, or at least not one in which there was any role for the U.S.

State Department diplomats couldn't operate there without security (that's glaringly obvious), but it's nonetheless a bit of a shock to learn that the department has paid Blackwater USA more than $600 million for its services over the last four years. On top of that, there are legions of private guards protecting the major commercial contractors doing business in Iraq, and even the Army itself hires men in shades for bodyguard work. Military officers seethe at the physical and political damage wreaked by these cowboys-for-hire, but short of a draft, there's no way the Army can provide all the grunts it would take to replace them.

One of the gifts from the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer III to the incoming Iraqi government was Order 17, which exempts the private security firms from any Iraqi regulation or law. It's what the colonial European powers used to call extra-territoriality, except that European transgressors in China or some similar place were at least theoretically subject to their own country's laws. Blackwater and its ilk (there are at least 50 other private security companies with personnel in Iraq) don't even have that burden to meet.

The private gunmen are especially loathed by Iraqis themselves, and the shootout last week in Nisoor Square in Baghdad, in which Blackwater men killed at least 11 Iraqis, has led to an uproar. The Iraqi parliament is considering a law to rescind Order 17. There are only two mysteries here: Why did it take this long for the Iraqis to act, and how will the U.S. find a way to stifle the law, which it surely will?

The administration is certainly trying to strong-arm Congress; a lawyer for Blackwater told Rep. Henry A. Waxman's subcommittee that the company can't provide any information to lawmakers without the approval of the State Department. In this way is the lawlessness of the whole enterprise amplified.

Congress should get the answers it wants to tough questions, Iraq should have legal authority over modern-day mercenaries on its territory, and as long as this unsavory system continues to exist, the State Department and other government agencies should spell out in their contracts, as the Pentagon does, that private guards are subject to the U.S. military code of justice - and then be sure to enforce those contracts.

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