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Warnings Unheeded On Guards In Iraq

The company developed a reputation for aggressive street tactics. Even inside the fortified Green Zone, Blackwater guards were known for running vehicles off the road and pointing their weapons at bystanders, according to several security company representatives and U.S. officials.

"They're universally despised in the" Green Zone, said Arrighi, who has managed security for several companies since 2004. "That's not an overstatement. 'Universally despised' is probably a kind way to put it."

The Iraqis' fury grew as they realized that Blackwater was untouchable, Degn said. After the May 24 shooting of a civilian Iraqi driver outside the Interior Ministry gates, Blackwater guards refused to divulge their names or details of the incident to the Iraqi authorities. Degn, who was working in the ministry at the time, recalled that the Iraqis were outraged and the American advisers felt threatened.

"After that day, people looked at us a little different," Degn said. "There was a palpable feeling. . . . We knew that something monumental had happened, that we were in deep water. And we felt like we weren't getting anything done. We were going up and coming down, but they weren't listening to a darn thing we were saying."

The State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Blackwater became synonymous with private security, "like Kleenex or Reynolds Wrap" being used to describe generic products, and was blamed for incidents even when it wasn't involved. He said the shootings should be viewed in the context of the several thousand missions that Blackwater conducted safely on Baghdad's dangerous streets.

On June 6, Kamal, the deputy minister, brought up the issue of Blackwater before the National Intelligence Committee. The committee's weekly meetings at the Iraqi parliament were headed by Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, and attended by several U.S. officials, including Lacquement, the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence.

A spokesman for Lacquement, who is now commander of the Army Intelligence and Security Command, said that for "reasons of classification and security," he could not address whether Blackwater was discussed.

"Clearly the overall philosophy and tactics of Blackwater were not in keeping with winning hearts and minds," said a senior defense official involved in private security policy. The company's aggressive tactics provoked widespread frustration among U.S. commanders in Iraq, but the complaints "never got out of the brigade level" until after the Sept. 16 incident, he said.

Kamal's pleas to do something about the private security firms went nowhere. "Kamal was ballistic," Degn said. The May 24 shooting "had happened right on Interior Ministry grounds. That's what made it so explosive. But once again, the Americans blew it off, so where are you going to take it after that?"

Degn said he was also frustrated. "We sent many memos up the chain of command," he said. "I thought it was a huge issue. The coalition knew about it, but it was just another part of the war, so nothing was ever done. I felt it was completely ignored."

"I mean, how many of these incidents does it take before you're finally aware?" Degn added.

'An Interesting Question'

In the spring of 2005, while on a one-year tour in Baghdad, Army Maj. Robert Bateman watched a Blackwater convoy barrel through a congested traffic circle, indiscriminately firing warning shots. Bateman, who frequently writes and blogs on military issues, described what he saw to his fiancee, Kate Turner, a first-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

On Dec. 5 that year, Turner decided to ask Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was visiting Johns Hopkins, what laws governed security contractors in Iraq.

"Iraq's a sovereign country. They have their laws, and they're going to govern," Rumsfeld replied.

Four months later, Turner raised the issue with President Bush when he visited the school.

"I asked your secretary of defense a couple months ago what law governs their actions," Turner said, according to a transcript of the exchange.

"I was going to ask him," the president responded, drawing laughter as he issued a mock entreaty. "Go ahead. Help."

"Mr. Rumsfeld answered that Iraq has its own domestic laws which he assumed applied to those private military contractors," Turner said. "However, Iraq is clearly not capable of enforcing its laws. I would submit to you that this is one case that privatization is not a solution. And, Mr. President, how do you propose to bring private military contractors under a system of law?"

"I wasn't kidding. I was going to pick up the phone and say, 'Mr. Secretary, I've got an interesting question,' " Bush replied. "I don't mean to be dodging the questions, although it's kind of convenient in this case."

Turner received a letter two weeks later from the Pentagon's Office of General Counsel. It directly contradicted Rumsfeld: "Contractors are . . . subject to oversight and accountability for their actions on the basis of U.S. law and regulation."

To date, not a single case has been brought against a private security contractor in Iraq. "The reality is the military has not had any oversight on this issue until recently," Arrighi said. "We could hire the Rockettes and give them guns, and they wouldn't know. It was a total wasteland."

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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