Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Blackwater Incident May Upset U.S. Plans in Iraq

Baghdad's Attempt To Limit Contractor Follows Shootout


September 18, 2007; Page A9; Wall Street Journal

The Iraqi government's effort to restrict the work of State Department contractor Blackwater USA could complicate U.S. diplomatic efforts, reconstruction work and possibly the current U.S. plan to withdraw troops.

The move follows a shootout Sunday between Iraqi insurgents and security guards from Blackwater who were protecting a State Department convoy in Baghdad. Iraqi civilians were reportedly killed during the fight. The Iraqi government responded by saying that it intends to deny Blackwater the right to work in the country.

Blackwater, of Moyock, N.C., said it hasn't been notified by Iraq's Interior Ministry about its license, which was still under review. "We haven't received any official word on this. We have only seen this in the press," said Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell. She said reports that the company's helicopters opened fire during the fighting were untrue but confirmed its guards were involved in a gunbattle. The company said it didn't know if any civilians were killed. Reports said as many as eight died.

The incident may increase strains between the Bush administration and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The State Department relies heavily on Blackwater to guard its diplomatic compound within Iraq's Green Zone and also to provide security for U.S. diplomats as they travel around Iraq. The work often calls for Blackwater to draw on its fleet of armed helicopters, which give it an arsenal that other security contractors lack.

"The reason there is such a strong business for personal security details is that the United States military and the Diplomatic Security Service don't have the manpower to fulfill the requirement," said Ray DuBois, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former undersecretary of the Army.

The incident comes at an awkward time for the Bush administration, which promised last week to begin withdrawing as many as 30,000 troops from Iraq by July. As the U.S. diminishes its military footprint, it is almost certain to rely more heavily on private-security companies to guard the tens of thousands of nonmilitary U.S. personnel working in Iraq.

Blackwater and dozens of other international security companies have operated in Iraq within a legal gray zone, where neither U.S. nor Iraqi law has a firm hold on the companies. In December, a Blackwater employee shot and killed a security guard for the Iraqi vice president during a scuffle in the Green Zone. The employee was whisked from Iraq, and no charges have been filed in either country.

"The inevitable part was not just the shootings, but the government's reaction," says Peter Singer, an expert on private military contractors at the Brookings Institution. "The Iraqi government is supposedly a sovereign state, so it is not surprising that at some point it would start to act like one, trying to enforce its monopoly over violence against other armed organizations on the ground."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke about the incident late yesterday with Mr. Maliki, and U.S. officials said the two sides "agreed on the importance of working closely together in the time ahead on a transparent investigation."

The State Department urged people not to jump to conclusions. "Iraq can be a very difficult place for our diplomats to operate in, and certainly people need to realize the environment in which our people operate," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

Security contractors, who are more lightly armed than their American military counterparts, play an important role protecting not just U.S. officials but also employees of the many companies working on rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure. Many firms use Iraqi security guards because of cost and an advantage gained through local knowledge, though some contracts stipulate what nationalities should be used. Blackwater is one of the largest security contractors in Iraq, with some 1,000 contractors there, most of them American. Picking up any slack should Blackwater's operations be interrupted or cease would be a tall order for rivals.

DynCorp International Inc. and Triple Canopy Inc., which also work on State Department security contracts in Iraq and elsewhere, declined to comment.

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