Security Contractors in Iraq Under Scrutiny

Private security contractors such as Blackwater USA are under scrutiny for their role in Iraq. The State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security lacks the manpower to protect its officials so it relies on contractors. Contractors operating in Iraq are immune from prosecution. Nathan Hodge, a reporter for Jane's Defence Weekly, speaks with Renee Montagne.

Maliki Calls Blackwater's Actions a Crime

Security Firm Regulations

Read about the proposals in Congress to stiffen the regulations that apply to security firms in Iraq.

A blackwater helicopter flying over Baghdad i i

A Blackwater security firm helicopter flies low above a central Baghdad street. Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
A blackwater helicopter flying over Baghdad

A Blackwater security firm helicopter flies low above a central Baghdad street. Iraq said that it will review the operations of all foreign and local security firms after a deadly Baghdad shootout over the weekend involving the US-based company, Blackwater.

Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
A private security firm in Baghdad i i

Members of a private security company pose on the rooftop of a house in Baghdad. Patrick Baz/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Baz/Getty Images
A private security firm in Baghdad

Members of a private security company pose on the rooftop of a house in Baghdad. Iraq declared that it will review the operations of all security firms working in the country following a deadly shootout involving private U.S. contractor Blackwater.

Patrick Baz/Getty Images

Outrage is growing in Iraq over the actions of the American security contractor, Blackwater USA.

Iraqi officials now say at least 20 civilians were killed in the Sunday shooting incident in Baghdad involving the contractors. Blackwater has said it was acting defensively, protecting a diplomatic convoy. A joint U.S.-Iraqi commission is investigating the shootings that took place on Sunday.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki isn't waiting for the results. Al-Maliki has called the company's actions a crime.

"We will never allow Iraqi citizens to be killed in cold blood by this company which doesn't care about the lives of Iraqis," al-Maliki said.

The spokesman for Iraqi military operations in Baghdad added that Sunday's incident is just the latest in which Blackwater has targeted innocent people. He cited two similar incidents in just the past month.

As if the lid of compliance and silence was suddenly broken, Iraqi officials point to many more incidents over the past few years. Blackwater once was able to explain away shootings of Iraqi civilians, saying they were acting in self defense. But Wednesday, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo acknowledged those explanations are no longer good enough.

"We are working very, very close with our Iraqi counterparts to find a solution to this issue, which, as you point out, has been one that's come out in the past," Nantongo said.

The U.S. Embassy and Blackwater maintain that the security company responded on Sunday to a car bomb near a diplomatic convoy. The prime minister's office acknowledges there was a bomb, but said it was so far away that it could not have been a legitimate reason for Blackwater guards to respond as they did.

Instead, Iraqi officials said the contractors started shooting wildly when a driver mistakenly entered a traffic circle at the same time as the convoy.

NPR witnessed a similar scenario two years ago. A State Department convoy, protected by Blackwater, raced out of a compound. Guards immediately shot at a car killing an old man, his son and his daughter-in-law. Blackwater said the car was driving erratically. A U.S. military investigation concluded Blackwater had used excessive force. No one was prosecuted.

Sunday's incident seems to be the final straw — not just for Iraq's prime minister, but for the public. Outrage was bubbling on the streets.

Karim Muhammed, who owns a furniture store, said he's seen people killed by foreign security companies. He said Iraqi officials should have done something about this a long time ago.

"Why do they consider American blood first class, and ours a cheap commodity?" Muhammed said. "Are they better than us?"

And Samir Samir said he fears the private security companies far more than the U.S. military.

"The U.S. military is subject to its own laws and monitoring," Samir said. "Who monitors the security companies?"

A traffic policeman working in downtown Baghdad, who asked not to be named, said he believes security companies shoot fast and freely. He said he desperately tries to clear the streets in front of them to save Iraqi lives.

"I have to empty the streets for them; otherwise, they would harm people," the policeman said.

Blackwater personnel are still in the country, but for now they are not escorting U.S. diplomats. This means that diplomats are, in effect, stuck in the four-mile-square fortified Green Zone.

Just what legal measures can be taken against Blackwater remains unclear. It has operated outside Iraqi law, a privilege extended while Iraq was still under American administration. But al-Maliki wants Blackwater out.

"The embassy can use other companies," Maliki said.

In any event, Maliki said the United States and Iraqis are working to revise the old laws to make sure foreign security companies are accountable in the future.

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