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The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohiio)

US Needs a Tighter Rein on Security Contractors in Iraq

Elizabeth Sullivan

Blackwater USA faces at least five investigations into a Baghdad shooting incident when as many as 11 Iraqi civilians were killed. The dead include a mother and her infant apparently shot on a car passenger seat before their car may have been set alight.

Yet not a single one of these inquiries involves possible criminal charges. Blackwater's liability for the Sept. 16 incident is limited because its guards were protecting a State Department convoy, not a Pentagon one.

Despite congressional efforts to close this loophole, State Department mercenaries still escape the sting of criminal prosecution, unlike security guards working for the Pentagon, who are subject to court-martial.

Some U.S. officials suggest the very act of guarding diplomats bestows immunity.

And that doesn't count the loopholes exempting contractors from Iraqi prosecution conveniently written into Iraqi law by former occupation proconsul Paul Bremer.

All of which means that all the probes could simply be spinning wheels. They include: a broad State Department inquiry into the fatal Blackwater actions; an Iraqi investigation; a joint Iraqi-U.S. look at ways to regulate security contractors; a State Department inquiry into its entire worldwide security contract; and at least one congressional investigation.

Yet already, the incident has magnified Iraqi anger and cynicism about U.S. forces and the Iraqi government. Many Iraqis now see Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's initial angry threat to take Blackwater's license away as a laughably empty and embarrassing gesture: It turned out there was no way the Iraqi government could do so.

Blackwater employees may include many talented U.S. ex-military figures, lured by the high pay and adrenaline-generating work.

Yet the North Carolina-based firm's record in Iraq carries serious blemishes, including at least 55 other shooting incidents this year.

Now a new congressional report on the gruesome killings in Fallujah of four Blackwater contractors, including Willoughby's Jerry Zovko, adds chilling dimensions to Blackwater's failures that March 2004 day.

Relying on internal e-mails, incident reports and insider interviews, the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concludes Blackwater failed to provide minimal protection for a security mission other contractors had declined.

The report says Blackwater failed to heed warnings from other contractors; failed to provide basic equipment such as armored vehicles, maps and machine guns; and cut two people from the mission at the last minute.

Granted, the families of the four murdered contractors have filed suit against Blackwater, meaning the accusations and recriminations will keep coming. The oversight committee's Republican staffers, who refused to sign on to the report's conclusions, called it a plaintiff's gift designed to enhance the families' lawsuit.

It's too bad the committee Democrats were unable to write a consensus document, or to produce publicly the key evidence on which they relied.

Still, Blackwater's own dodges also raise questions.

According to the House committee's majority staff, Blackwater officials withheld information by claiming it was classified when it was not -- and when Blackwater reportedly was trying to get the Pentagon to classify the documents retroactively.

Blackwater terms the Democrats' report "one-sided" -- and in at least one sense, it is. The horrible, undeserved fates meted out to Jerry Zovko and his fellows March 31, 2004 were not the work of Blackwater. Iraqi insurgents murdered those men.

Yet how, then, does Blackwater justify a $10 million countersuit against their estates? Let the courts sort out the facts without legal intimidation.

As for the recent shooting, at the very least, Blackwater's liability-free honeymoon should be drawing to a close. The time has come to subject the tens of thousands of security contractors operating in Iraq to the accountability that comes from the risk of criminal prosecution.

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.

© 2007 The Plain Dealer

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