Monday, September 17, 2007

Blackwater to Keep on Rollin?

While President Bush waxed sanguine about the long term prospects of his idealized, and solipsistic, conception of a "free Iraq" in his televised speech last week, the quality of freedom in the "free Iraq" equation will likely be tested shortly. From the Associated Press:

The Iraqi government said Monday that it was revoking the license of an American security firm accused of involvement in the deaths of eight civilians in a firefight that followed a car bomb explosion near a State Department motorcade.

The Interior Ministry said it would prosecute any foreign contractors found to have used excessive force in the Sunday shooting. It was the latest accusation against the U.S.-contracted firms that operate with little or no supervision and are widely disliked by Iraqis who resent their speeding motorcades and forceful behavior.
Spencer Ackerman provides some details:

Yesterday's incident involved an insurgent attack on a State Department convoy in the Sunni neighborhood of Mansour in western Baghdad. Blackwater personnel guarding the motorcade returned fire -- "to defend themselves," according to a State Department official quoted by The Washington Post. A Post reporter on the scene in Mansour witnessed Blackwater's Little Bird helicopters "firing into the streets." Almost immediately, an Interior Ministry spokesman said the company's license to operate in Iraq would be revoked.

See, that's easier said than done. As Ackerman and Larry Johnson point out, Blackwater doesn't actually have a license to revoke. That is, Blackwater's authorization comes directly through the US State Department as part of its diplomatic security apparatus. So it's not clear on what authority the Iraqi government would act - which gets to the larger question of what is the true quality of the "freedom" or "sovereignty" that any government could claim while the nation it represents is being occupied by a large foreign army, both private and official.

This recent incident has brought to a head simmering resentment about the relative immunity, and thus impunity, enjoyed by the tens of thousands of armed security contractors operating under US government aegis. These private soldiers do not have to comply with the same rules of engagement as US military forces, and not surprisingly considering the absence of such standards, there are numerous Iraqi complaints accusing the mercenary forces of showing a callous disregard for life.

In response to the latest provocation from non-official military forces, the Maliki government has staked a bold public position that will be as difficult to execute as it will to walk back. From the perspective of the United States at least, Maliki's proposed action is likely a non-starter. Spackerman again:

The Interior Ministry's decision is likely to be a source of friction between the U.S. Embassy and Iraq. Not only does Blackwater guard many important U.S. officials there, but the embassy is unlikely to want a precedent established that allows the Iraqi government to kick out U.S. contractors for excessive use of force.

The US simply does not have enough troops to make-up for the potential loss of the private security contingent currently provided by Blackwater - let alone those other firms that might be clipped if the "precedent" were established that the Iraqi government actually had a say in which armed groups had license to operate in Iraq.

Yet at the same time, the Maliki government risks further alienating the Iraqi people, and reinforcing the image of impotence and subservience, by backing down, yet again, in the face of American pressure on such a sensitive issue. The last time Maliki tried to flex his sovereign muscles, he "halted" the construction of "security walls" in and around certain Sunni enclaves in Baghdad. Although Maliki and the Iraqi parliament made a loud public protest, the walls went up regardless. I expect the controversy surrounding the Blackwater incident to follow the same arc. Not without costs however, as Larry Johnson observes:

I can only imagine how Americans would react if there were Russian, Chinese, Mexican, or French security firms running around the United States and getting into firefights in tough neighborhoods, such as South Central Los Angeles. We would just shrug our shoulders and say nothing. Right?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. This incident will enrage Iraqis and their subsequent realization that they are impotent to do anything about it will do little to support the fantasy that the surge is working. There are some Iraqis who genuinely want to run their own country. But we are not about to give them the keys to the car. Blackwater is staying.

We might not give them the keys just yet, but the Iraqi people have more than enough power to make this an increasingly deadly car ride. Even for our private chauffeurs.

(cross posted at Total Information Awareness)

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