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The Curious Case of 5 US Contractors Arrested by Iraq for 'Murder'

by Jeremy Scahill

Over the past few days, there has been quite a buzz on listserves frequented by private security contractors and industry representatives over the recent "arrest" of five US contractors by Iraqi forces in Baghdad. Over the past six years of occupation, contractors have become accustomed to operating in a zone of legal immunity and impunity (especially when it comes to the authority of the Iraqi judicial system). If Iraq were to really start asserting its authority over crimes committed by private forces in Baghdad, it would create a very tense situation between the Obama administration and the corporate shadow army on which his foreign policies in Iraq and Afghanistan depend. Bush had a simple way of dealing with this issue: he banned Iraqi courts from having jurisdiction (through Bremer's Order 17) and worked with companies to facilitate the flight from justice of murder suspects wanted by the Iraqis.

This recent case of the five US contractors could well become a major test on how Obama's administration comes down on the broader issue of contractor accountability and, ultimately, the sovereignty of the Iraqi judicial system.

Over the past day, new information is coming out of Baghdad regarding the arrest of the five men in connection with the death of another contractor. On May 22, James Owen Kitterman was found stabbed to death in Baghdad. He was president of Janus Construction, a company which Kitterman started last year, though he had worked in Iraq from the very beginning of the occupation.

When the story was initially reported, The New York Times, citing unnamed Iraqi Interior Ministry spokespeople, alleged last weekend that the five men were "detained in Baghdad in connection with the killing." The case was being portrayed as evidence of Iraqi sovereignty and an indication that the era of immunity for US contractors in Iraq was over:

The suspects were arrested by an Iraqi force with American backing, according to an embassy official, who insisted on anonymity because of the delicacy of the case. A statement issued by the State Department said that "local representatives from the F.B.I. were present during the search" that led to the arrests.

An F.B.I. official said the agency would defer to Iraqi authorities in the case, but would provide low-key assistance if requested. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, said that the case could be a test of Iraq's nascent judicial system and of new arrangements between Iraq and the United States governing contractors' legal status.

Now, however, a different narrative is emerging in the Times, which has the US and Iraqi authorities providing different versions of why the men were arrested. New details are also coming to light about the identities of the men:

Four of them worked as security contractors for Corporate Training Unlimited; the founder and chairman of the company, Donald Feeney Jr., 55, and his son Donald Feeney III, 31, were among the detainees. The other man being held worked for another contracting company.

Iraqi and American officials have been working together on the investigation but give different accounts of why the men were detained...

"The five were not arrested on suspicion of murder but were detained on an unrelated matter," said James Fennell, a spokesman for the United States Embassy. "The search that took place was part of the investigation into the Kitterman homicide, but at the time Iraqi law enforcement came upon possible evidence of an unrelated matter."

He did not say what the evidence was.

But Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said unequivocally that the men were arrested on suspicion of murder.

[...]

John Feeney, Donald Feeney Jr.'s younger son, said in a phone interview that the authorities had confiscated weapons, probably while checking for proper registration. But he also said that the group's detention was directly related to the murder investigation and that a resolution should come in the next few days.

"We expect them to be released soon with no charges filed," Mr. Feeney said.

How this situation is handled will be very interesting to watch. If the US does allow these men to be prosecuted in an Iraqi court and potentially sentenced to prison or the death penalty, it will send extreme shock waves through the contractor community and present a very complicated situation for President Obama, who continues to rely very very heavily on these private forces to maintain the US occupation of Iraq and increasingly, by the day, the US operations in Afghanistan.

There will certainly be an argument by defense lawyers (if it gets that far) that these five men should be prosecuted in US courts or potentially under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. While the outcome of this case will be an important development to monitor, the real test of how the US views contractor accountability will be when an armed US contractor kills an Iraqi civilian and Iraq attempts to arrest and prosecute that individual. Would that ever be allowed to happen?

The US Justice Department has moved to prosecute some contractors, including five Blackwater men at the center of the September 2007 Nisour Square shooting in Baghdad, but there are scores of incidents that have (thus far) gone unprosecuted. Instead, victims' families have sought to sue companies and contractors in US civil courts in an effort to win justice.

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