Scuffle With Security Contractors Highlights Iraqis' New Clout in Green Zone

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

BAGHDAD, Oct. 6 -- In a dramatic illustration of shifting authority in the Green Zone, once an American preserve here, Iraqi soldiers confronted a security detail contracted by the U.S. government, detained four of the guards and beat them in a standoff last week that lasted at least two hours, according to Iraqi officials, the company and the U.S. Embassy.

The U.S. military negotiated the guards' release several hours later, the U.S. Embassy said, and the four men were flown out of Iraq, for fear that charges might be filed against them.

Philip Frayne, an embassy spokesman, confirmed that an incident occurred at one of the fortified entrances to the Green Zone but said no American diplomats were in the convoy. "Information is still in the process of being gathered and evaluated," he said.

Douglas Ebner, a spokesman for Falls Church-based DynCorp International, said the men involved in the Sept. 28 incident were employed by the company. He said that they were mistreated and that the company "has strongly voiced our deep concerns regarding this incident both with the State Department and with Iraqi authorities."

A senior Iraqi officer with the Baghdad Brigade, the Iraqi army unit charged with guarding the Green Zone, also confirmed the incident but denied that the men were beaten. He said the confrontation escalated because no interpreter was available.

"The problem is that the PSDs," an abbreviation that has entered Iraqi slang as a catchall term for contractors' convoys, "don't understand that sovereignty is in the hands of Iraqis now," the officer said. "These groups still consider themselves above the law."

Before a U.S.-Iraqi agreement took effect Jan. 1, regulating the U.S. presence here and outlining an eventual American withdrawal, contractors were immune from the Iraqi legal process under an order signed by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, in June 2004. At the time, it was unclear whether contractors were covered under U.S. military or civilian law.

The result was that not a single private security contractor was charged with a crime despite dozens of suspicious shootings involving Iraqi civilians. The legacy has made contractors one of the most loathed groups in today's Iraq. In one of the worst incidents, heavily armed guards for the North Carolina-based firm then known as Blackwater opened fire on Iraqis in a crowded street on Sept. 16, 2007, killing 17 civilians, after the guards' convoy reportedly came under fire.

Under the agreement, some U.S. contractors retain their immunity, but the Iraqi government, as it did in the case of Blackwater, can revoke or refuse to renew operating licenses.

An account of last week's incident that appeared to be written by a DynCorp employee was forwarded by e-mail to The Washington Post. Several people said the details of the account seemed accurate, but Ebner said he could not confirm who authored it.

According to the account, the last vehicle of a convoy was stopped at an entrance to the Green Zone. Iraqi guards tried to get the private security guards to turn over smoke grenades. One of the private guards tried to find out who was in charge and started shouting at an Iraqi captain. A member of the contractor team then tried to photograph the captain, who grabbed the camera.

The Iraqi officer with the Baghdad Brigade said the security contractor hit the captain, although the account denied that. The incident quickly escalated, according to the account and the Iraqi officer.

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