The helicopter was hovering over a Baghdad checkpoint into the Green Zone, one typically crowded with cars, Iraqi civilians and United States military personnel.
Suddenly, on that May day in 2005, the copter dropped CS gas, a riot-control substance the American military in Iraq can use only under the strictest conditions and with the approval of top military commanders. An armored vehicle on the ground also released the gas, temporarily blinding drivers, passers-by and at least 10 American soldiers operating the checkpoint.
“This was decidedly uncool and very, very dangerous,” Capt. Kincy Clark of the Army, the senior officer at the scene, wrote later that day. “It’s not a good thing to cause soldiers who are standing guard against car bombs, snipers and suicide bombers to cover their faces, choke, cough and otherwise degrade our awareness.”
Both the helicopter and the vehicle involved in the incident at the Assassins’ Gate checkpoint were not from the United States military, but were part of a convoy operated by Blackwater Worldwide, the private security contractor that is under scrutiny for its role in a series of violent episodes in Iraq, including a September shooting in downtown Baghdad that left 17 Iraqis dead.
This episode is emblematic of the frequently leveled charge that Blackwater - and other mercenary forces in Iraq - take a cavalier attitude toward the local population (and, at least in this instance, US military personnel) in pursuit of narrowly defined goals: ensuring the safety of its employees, and those it is hired to protect regardless of the impact its actions have on Iraqis. Military personnel, on the other hand, adjust their tactics to comport with larger, strategic concerns such as pursuing sound counterinsurgency doctine (COIN) which puts a premium on minimizing civilian casualties and disruptions in an effort to sway hearts and minds.
Officers and noncommissioned officers from the Third Infantry Division who were involved in the episode said there were no signs of violence at the checkpoint. Instead, they said, the Blackwater convoy appeared to be stuck in traffic and may have been trying to use the riot-control agent as a way to clear a path.
Further, mercenary forces in Iraq operate in a state of legal-limbo - outside of the normal chain of command, and with an underdeveloped or non-existent statutory framework to govern action.
The military...tightly controls use of riot control agents in war zones. They are banned by an international convention on chemical weapons endorsed by the United States, although a 1975 presidential order allows their use by the United States military in war zones under limited defensive circumstances and only with the approval of the president or a senior officer designated by the president.
A United States military spokesman in Baghdad refused to describe the current rules of engagement governing the use of riot control agents, but former Army lawyers say their use requires the approval of the military’s most senior commanders. “You never had a soldier with the authority to do it on his own,” said Thomas J. Romig, a retired major general who served as the chief judge advocate general of the United States Army from 2001 to 2005 and is now the dean of the Washburn School of Law in Topeka, Kan. [...]
But the same tight controls apparently did not apply to Blackwater at the time of the incident.
Unless it is possible to bring private forces under some semblance of a chain of command, and until there are both means and willingness to enforce rules applied against such groups, their presence in war zones will continue to be a crippling impediment to successful COIN operations - which will only put the lives of US military personnel in danger. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue of unleashing such callous elements on the indigenous population.[UPDATE: Jason Sigger (aka Armchair Generalist) has more. It should be noted that this story touches on several aspects of the Generalistimo's expertise, making his piece an informative, and humorous, read.]
(cross-posted at American Footprints)