Private security companies in Iraq have come under political attack after mercenaries for Blackwater USA fired upon unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square, killing 17 and wounding 24. Angry Iraqis, including collaborationist officials of the U.S.-backed occupation regime, have complained that swaggering rent-a-soldiers operate with callous disregard for the safety of Iraqis. A 27-year-old ex-paratrooper for Blackwater even stands accused of--but faces no possibility of prison time for-shooting, while in a drunken frenzy, a man who was guarding Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi.
A media pile-on has ensued.
Condi Rice, whose State Department is a major Blackwater client, ordered cameras mounted on vehicles in the company's convoys. The House of Representatives, normally so divided it can't agree that torture is bad or that sick kids need doctors, came together as one--389 to 30--to pass a bill that would subject mercenaries to criminal prosecution when they blow away foreigners in a war zone. Now the presidential contenders are weighing in.
"We cannot win a fight for hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors," said Barack Obama. "To add insult to injury, these contractors are charging taxpayers up to nine times more to do the same jobs as soldiers, a disparity that damages troop morale."
Obama may be onto something. Why pay for employed by private corporations, when you can get the same cowboy antics at one-ninth the price?
Pundits and politicians are scapegoating Blackwater and other private security firms to help sell the continuation of the Iraq War. Some mercenaries shoot at anything that moves. They endanger locals with crazy practices like speeding down jammed highways on the wrong side. (Memo to Secy. Gates: Ban screenings of "Ronin.") Rein in these Rambo wannabes or fire them, the argument goes, and Iraqi commuters will warm to their friendly public-sector replacements in the United States Armed Forces. A thousand roses will bloom. Soon we'll be awash in that staple of postwar gratitude, Iraqi war brides.
But it isn't just Blackwater. Official U.S. soldiers are no less stupid or vicious or trigger-happy than their private counterparts.
In 2003 U.S. troops manning a checkpoint in Karbala repeatedly fired a 25-millimeter cannon at a Toyota containing 13 people trying to flee the fighting. At least seven people, including five children age five or under, were killed. "You just f---ing killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough," a captain radioed to his platoon leader moments later. Checkpoint shootings of innocent civilians became a daily occurrence, due to rules of engagement that placed more value upon the lives of American troops than those of the Iraqis they were supposedly there to liberate.
Often the "checkpoints" were invisible to Iraqi motorists. American soldiers would hide in buildings near an intersection and fire "warning shots" at the engine blocks of approaching vehicles. Assuming that they were being ambushed by bandits, Iraqi drivers would floor the accelerator. Soldiers then treated them as potential suicide bombers, turning them into Swiss cheese. "Many U.S. officials describe...the military's standard practice of firing at onrushing cars from their checkpoints in Iraq," reports The Washington Post.
"We fired warning shots at everyone," said one soldier. "They would speed up to come at us, and we would shoot them. You couldn't tell who was in the car from where we were. We found that out later. We would just look in and see they were dead and could see there were women inside."
That's what happened to Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari. After obtaining the release of a journalist from insurgents who had held her hostage for one month, Calipari accompanied her to a checkpoint near the Baghdad airport. U.S. soldiers opened fire. The warning shot missed the engine block. Calipari died; the reporter was wounded. Though their Iraqi driver insists that he was driving their Toyota Corolla (memo to travelers to Iraq: consider a Honda) under 25 miles per hour, the Pentagon said he was "speeding."
A lot of professional U.S. soldiers have screamed their contempt for Iraqis since the beginning of the war. "For almost a year," reported the East Bay Express in 2005, "American soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been taking photographs of dead bodies, many of them horribly mutilated or blown to pieces, and sending them to [a pornographic website]. American soldiers have been using the pictures of disfigured Iraqi corpses as currency to buy pornography."
If you've just eaten, stop reading now.
The Express describes the photos: "A man in a leather coat who apparently tried to run a military checkpoint lies slumped in the driver's seat of a car, his head obliterated by gunfire, the flaps of skin from his neck blooming open like rose petals. Six men in beige fatigues, identified as U.S. Marines, laugh and smile for the camera while pointing at a burned, charcoal-black corpse lying at their feet."
"[A] person who posted a picture of a corpse lying in a pool of his own brains and entrails wrote, 'What every Iraqi should look like.' One person posted three photographs of corpses lying in the street and titled his collection 'DIE HAJI [a racist slur for Iraqis used by U.S. soldiers] DIE.'"
Google the Express story. It gets even uglier.
Blackwater's hired goons are exempt from prosecution. So, apparently, are real soldiers. Atrocity after atrocity goes unpunished or rewarded with a slap on the wrist.
Specialist Jorge Sandoval, 22, was acquitted of murdering two Iraqis, one on April 27, the other on May 11 near Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad. However, a military court-martial found him guilty of planting detonation wire on the first victim to make him look like an insurgent. If he was innocent, why did he try to cover up the shooting?
Specialist James Barker, 23, of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, based in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, admitted that he held down a 14-year-old Iraqi girl in 2005 while another soldier raped her, then shot her several times in her Mahmudiya home. He dowsed her with kerosene and set her on fire. According to CNN, "he was not sure if he penetrated the girl, because he was having trouble getting an erection." He and five fellow soldiers also murdered her parents and her 7-year-old sister. Thanks to a plea bargain, said The New York Times, "he could be released on parole in 20 years."
The same crime committed in the U.S. would earn life in prison, or the death penalty.
A Marine Staff Sergeant charged in the massacre of 24 people in Haditha, The New York Times reports, will not face murder charges because investigating civilian deaths isn't a military priority. "Prosecuting the Haditha case has posed special challenges because the killings were not comprehensively investigated when they first occurred," says the Times. "Months later, when details came to light, there were no bodies to examine and no Iraqi witnesses to test."
The 2005 Express piece contains this tragicomic gem: "[Disrespect for Iraqi deaths] could become an international public-relations catastrophe." Internationally, the "war porn" scandal was merely one of a string of stories that confirmed our reputation as brutal neocolonialists. Here in the United States, however, "supporting the troops" means turning a blind eye to their actions--or blaming them on private contractors.
Ted Rall is the author of the new book "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.
Copyright 2007 Ted Rall