Iraq Forces Agreement Ends Contractor Immunity Security companies are the most visible symbol of the booming private contractor industry that has accompanied America's five-year occupation of Iraq. But the new Iraqi-American security pact going into effect in January will end the immunity from prosecution in Iraq the companies have enjoyed.

Iraq Forces Agreement Ends Contractor Immunity

Iraq Forces Agreement Ends Contractor Immunity

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Blackwater guards provide security in downtown Baghdad. Private security companies earned between $6 billion and $10 billion in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images

Blackwater guards provide security in downtown Baghdad. Private security companies earned between $6 billion and $10 billion in Iraq between 2003 and 2007.

Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images

Private security companies will lose immunity once the Iraqi-American security pact goes into effect. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Private security companies will lose immunity once the Iraqi-American security pact goes into effect.

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Federal prosecutors have charged five employees of the private security company Blackwater with manslaughter, after they allegedly fired machine guns and grenades in a crowded intersection in central Baghdad in 2007, killing 17 Iraqi civilians. Blackwater's defense attorneys say the guards were acting in self-defense.

The high profile case is being tried just weeks before a new Iraqi-American security pact goes into effect, which will strip thousands of private security guards working in Iraq of the immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law that they have enjoyed until now.

The small helicopters flying low and moving in fast circles over Baghdad are likely operated by private security contractors providing an aerial escort to a VIP who is traveling on the ground with a convoy of armed guards.

Security companies are the most visible symbol of the booming private contractor industry that has accompanied America's five-year occupation of Iraq.

According to U.S. government reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office, private security companies earned between $6 billion and $10 billion in Iraq between 2003 and 2007.

Extensive Duties

The Department of Defense says they do the equivalent work of nine U.S. Army brigades.

"There are probably 3,000 to 5,000 Westerners involved in the industry right now," says Lawrence Peters, director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, which represents about 40 such companies. "Maybe upwards of 5,000 to 10,000 third-country nationals, and another 15,000 Iraqis themselves with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. They guard people through personal security details that move these people around the country, they protect facilities, and they also protect cargo movements through convoy security."

For the past five years, private security contractors like Blackwater, DynCorp and Aegis have enjoyed complete immunity from Iraqi law. That will change on Jan. 1, when the new Iraqi-American security pact goes into effect. One key clause states that Iraq will then have the right to prosecute private contractors under Iraqi law, and that has people like Peters worried.

"The advice that we're being given is to have good local legal counsel," Peters says.

Douglas Brooks, who heads the International Peace Operations Association, which speaks for the contracting industry in Iraq, agrees.

"If there's a police chief or a governor who has a political issue, he can actually throw a foreign contractor in jail," Brooks says. "The penal system is not particularly well-recognized by the international community as being fair and just. And there are concerns about pre-trial detention and human rights issues. There are concerns about sentencing, because Iraq is known as having a fairly robust capital punishment system."

'They Are Mercenaries'

But Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker in the Iraqi parliament, says it's time contractors had to answer to the law.

"The contractors have behaved very badly in Iraq," Othman says. "They are mercenaries, anyway, and people hate them. When they are in the street, nobody dares to approach them. They have shot people, they have killed people, and I think everybody's happy about removing the immunity from it. Every Iraqi."

Anyone traveling the congested streets of Baghdad has been a witness to the aggressive behavior of gun-toting private security contractors roaring past in convoys of armored vehicles.

A uniformed traffic policeman, named Mohammed Ali, says the security contractors often drive the wrong way in traffic and refuse to obey his instructions.

"Security contractors recently shot at one of our traffic policemen while he was on his motorcycle," Ali says. "I am more afraid of the security companies than I am of the American soldiers."

One Iraqi man, who only gives his first name, Ahmed, recently quit after spending a year making $48 a day working as an armed driver for the security company Aegis in the Iraqi town of Kut.

He says most of the employees on his team were ex-British military, and he says he was regularly dispatched to buy them anabolic steroids like Dianabol.

"For such people, yes, I want them to leave the country," Ahmed says. "And I do think it would be much better if the security be the U.S. Army itself, because it's going to be safer and less money paid to them."

A recent GAO report concluded that since 2007, the U.S. government has taken some significant steps to strengthen the oversight of private security contractors.

As for the companies themselves, they say they will wait and see how the Iraqi government treats them in coming months. If Iraq becomes unprofitable, industry insiders say security contractors are already anticipating that Afghanistan under the Obama administration will become the next major market for their services.