Private Security Puts Diplomats, Military at Odds
Contractors in Iraq Fuel Debate
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; Page A01
BAGHDAD, Sept. 25 -- A confrontation between the U.S. military and the State Department is unfolding over the involvement of Blackwater USA in the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad square Sept. 16, bringing to the surface long-simmering tensions between the military and private security companies in Iraq, according to U.S. military and government officials.
In high-level meetings over the past several days, U.S. military officials have pressed State Department officials to assert more control over Blackwater, which operates under the department's authority, said a U.S. government official with knowledge of the discussions. "The military is very sensitive to its relationship that they've built with the Iraqis being altered or even severely degraded by actions such as this event," the official said.
"This is a nightmare," said a senior U.S. military official. "We had guys who saw the aftermath, and it was very bad. This is going to hurt us badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib, and it comes at a time when we're trying to have an impact for the long term." The official was referring to the prison scandal that emerged in 2004 in which U.S. soldiers tortured and abused Iraqis.
In last week's incident, Blackwater guards shot into a crush of cars, killing at least 11 Iraqis and wounding 12. Blackwater officials insist their guards were ambushed, but witnesses have described the shooting as unprovoked. Iraq's Interior Ministry has concluded that Blackwater was at fault.
In interviews involving a dozen U.S. military and government officials, many expressed anger and concern over the shootings in Nisoor Square, in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood. Some worried it could undermine the military's efforts to stabilize Iraq this year with an offensive involving thousands of reinforcements.
"This is a big mess that I don't think anyone has their hands around yet," said another U.S. military official. "It's not necessarily a bad thing these guys are being held accountable. Iraqis hate them, the troops don't particularly care for them, and they tend to have a know-it-all attitude, which means they rarely listen to anyone -- even the folks that patrol the ground on a daily basis."
Most officials spoke on condition of anonymity because there are at least three ongoing investigations of Blackwater's role in the shootings. There are also sensitive discussions between various U.S. agencies and the Iraqi government over the future of Blackwater and other private security firms in Iraq.
A State Department official asked why the military is shifting the question to State "since the DOD has more Blackwater contractors than we do, including people doing PSD [personal security detail] for them. . . . They've [Blackwater] basically got contracts with DOD that are larger than the contracts with State."
According to federal spending data compiled by the independent Web site FedSpending.org, however, the State Department's Blackwater contracts vastly exceed those of the Pentagon. Since 2004, State has paid Blackwater $833,673,316, compared with Defense Department contracts of $101,219,261.
A Blackwater spokeswoman did not return telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment.
The State Department official, directly addressing the question of Blackwater, said: "The bottom line of this is that we recognize that there's an issue here. We don't think we need to be told by anyone else that the incident on September 16 raised a whole series of other issues with respect to how these kinds of contract services operate, and that's why we're both working with this joint commission with the Iraqis as well as [conducting an] internal investigation here to ensure we can address some of the underlying issues."
Scores of private security firms play a vital role in the U.S. military mission, from force protection to securing the perimeters of American bases and guarding generals. They free up more U.S. soldiers for combat duty and to secure neighborhoods.