MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The government of Iraq is taking some initial steps to clamp down on foreign security contractors. The Interior Ministry has drafted a new law that would give it more control, including the power to prosecute companies working in Iraq.
Guards from Blackwater USA were back on the streets of Baghdad today, escorting some State Department convoys. The American Embassy has eased its ban on trips outside the Green Zone, but Blackwater remains under heavy scrutiny after last weekend's shooting incident, which left 20 dead.
NPR's senior news analyst, Ted Koppel, says the Blackwater episode shed some light on the role Americans play in Iraq.
TED KOPPEL: They don't like the term mercenary at Blackwater USA. That, their executives will tell you, implies an armed force that can be hired to conduct offensive military operations. Their employees conduct only defensive operations, subject - as State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the other day - to Department of State rules of engagement.
Set aside for a moment the intriguing question of why the State Department, which has no military force of its own, even has rules of engagement. You can see how the line between what's offensive and defensive blurs pretty quickly in the violent cauldron that is Baghdad.
A car bomb exploded the other day in the Iraqi capital, and U.S. Embassy officials say that's what prompted Blackwater security personnel guarding an embassy convoy to open fire. Iraqi officials say the car bomb was nowhere near the convoy. They say the shooting started when a car carrying a man, a woman and a small child failed to obey a policeman's order to stop, so the convoy could pass. Either way, a car bomb blocks away or a family in a car driving in the wrong place at the wrong time served to trigger a deadly defensive action that killed 20 Iraqis.
Look, cars with civilians, even children inside, have been used by suicide bombers to kill Americans in Iraq. A car bomb blocks away can be a decoy to set up an ambush. Under the circumstances that exist in Iraq these days, nobody makes the right call every time. But if we want to lend truth to the charade that the Iraqi government has any genuine, independent authority, some of the rules are going to need adjustment.
There are well over 100,000 civilian contractors presently working in Iraq. They are not subject to local laws and neither, of course, are U.S. military personnel. So, well over a quarter of a million people operating in behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq are beyond the reach or control of the Iraqi government.
If the goal is to start drawing down U.S. military forces in Iraq, that creates an even greater need for civilian contractors. The Iraqi government may want to expel them. The U.S. government, however, can't get along without them. Even if a handful of men are expelled for symbolic reasons, Blackwater and its fellow contractors are in Iraq for a good, long time to come.
This is Ted Koppel.