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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When private security guards escorting a diplomatic convoy opened fire last Sunday in Baghdad, it was a kind of turning point. Civilians died, Iraqi authorities say more than 20, and Iraq's prime minister suspended the operations of Blackwater USA. The deaths and the anger that followed has drawn new attention to the role of private security contractors in Iraq.

Nathan Hodge is a reporter for Jane's Defence Weekly and he joins us now, on the line, to tell us more.

Good morning.

MR. NATHAN HODGE (Reporter, Jane's Defence Weekly): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Describe for us the extent of Blackwater's presence in Iraq. I mean, who do they and what do they protect?

Mr. HODGE: Most of the focus here has been on Blackwater's State Department contract that basically provides for the Department of State personnel protective services. And this has really been a really big line of business for Blackwater in Iraq.

But it would be important to stress here that the company has also really kind of expanding its global reach. And the Blackwater security contract for the State Department is part of an umbrella contract that the company received along with two other companies about two years ago.

But in Iraq, the bulk of its money, I think, has come from these sort of State Department contracts. And it's important to distinguish this from the Department of Defense contracts, because there are a lot of other private security companies that operate under contracts to the Department of Defense or contractors to the Department of Defense.

MONTAGNE: Right. But, you know, just…

Mr. HODGE: The real question - I'm sorry. Go ahead.

MONTAGNE: I mean, the one question people are asking is why are you as diplomats in Iraq protected by private firms and not the American military?

Mr. HODGE: It's realty a simple thing. Ryan Crocker, I believe, who is the top diplomat in Iraq, has basically said that there's no way that State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security could ever have enough personnel to do that job. Really, that Bureau of Diplomatic Security personnel is - it's pretty small in number. Just like the State Department, it doesn't have the manpower the Defense Department does, so they rely heavily on outsourcing their security.

MONTAGNE: Now, the U.S. and Iraqi governments are investigating this shooting - this incident, but there's an interesting situation that Blackwater and other private security contractors are in over there in Iraq, which they appear to be, by law, immune from prosecution?

Mr. HODGE: This all goes back to Order 17, which was an order issued under the Coalition Provisional Authority by Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA. And effectively, what it did was it gave immunity to contractors working on reconstruction projects in Iraq. And with that very small order, it's had massive implications for, you know, the way these companies operate in Iraq.

Now, they will stress always that they adhere strictly to the terms of their contract. But that being said, there seems to have been a kind of a legal loophole - how do Iraqis address grievances, for instance, if there is a case of excessive force.

MONTAGNE: And, how do they?

Mr. HODGE: Well, that's the open question. And we're going to wait and see what happens. But at this point, there doesn't seem to be any kind of mechanism under Iraqi law, and I think that it's probably clear that they may be a bit revisiting Order 17, which still stands, to try to see if they can find a way. But at this point, I don't see Blackwater going anywhere from Iraq, and it doesn't seem that Order 17 would be repealed anytime soon. It's important to point out that there are some people in the industry who really do think that it is time for Iraq, as a sovereign government, to find a way repeal it that needs to be done in a sensible way.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

Mr. HODGE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Nathan Hodge is a reporter for Jane's Defence Weekly.

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