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Where Military Rules Don't Apply

Blackwater USA, whose employees guard U.S. diplomats in Iraq, has received $678 million in State Department contracts since 2003.
Blackwater USA, whose employees guard U.S. diplomats in Iraq, has received $678 million in State Department contracts since 2003. (January 2005 Photo By Scott Peterson -- Getty Images)

"It's a lot of people with guns who are under no real law, and that's very troublesome," said Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who has advocated greater oversight of private security companies. "Ninety-five percent of the people who are doing this are honest, ethical and moral, but the fringe that isn't, it's very difficult to see the legal construct that will hold them accountable."

Interior Ministry officials have said they had received information on six previous cases in which Blackwater guards allegedly opened fire on civilians, more than any other company.

Blackwater's conduct at times inflamed tensions inside the Interior Ministry, Degn said. On May 24, Degn was evacuated from the building after an armed standoff between Interior Ministry commandos and Blackwater guards, who had shot and killed an Iraqi driver outside the gates. U.S. and Iraqi officials feared the incident might lead to retaliatory attacks against Americans.

"They are part of the reason for all the hatred that is directed at Americans, because people don't know them as Blackwater, they know them only as Americans," said an Interior Ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. The official, interviewed before Sunday's incident, said, "They are planting hatred, because of these irresponsible acts."

Problems of Accountability

The use of private security skyrocketed in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion because of troop shortages and growing violence. U.S. authorities have no idea how many hired guns operate in the country; estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000 or higher.

To a large degree, the companies regulate themselves. Lawrence T. Peter, director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, which represents at least 50 security companies, also serves as a $40-per-hour consultant on security issues to the Pentagon's Defense Reconstruction Support Office, which issues contracts.

Peter, during an interview in Baghdad, said that while serving as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority he wrote the initial drafts of Memorandum 17, dated June 26, 2004, which established operating guidelines for security companies and remains "the extant law for private security contractors in Iraq."

The rules on use of force are introduced in capital letters with the statement: "NOTHING IN THESE RULES LIMITS YOUR INHERENT RIGHT TO TAKE ACTION NECESSARY TO DEFEND YOURSELF."

A separate document, CPA Order 17, dated June 27, 2004, granted the private security companies immunity from Iraqi law.

The CPA administrator, L. Paul Bremer, left Iraq the next day after transferring authority to an interim Iraqi government.

Vetting of security companies in Iraq remains so lax that another organization, the International Contractors Association, has offered to help companies discern experienced guards from those who lack qualifications. "If people won't regulate us, we will regulate ourselves, and we will do so professionally," said Jaco S. Botes, a South African contractor who heads the association.

"If the industry goes unchecked, it will implode -- that's just the logical way of things to happen," he said. "It's like a landslide. It will grow and grow until everybody is just fed up."

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