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How the 'Blackwater Scandal' helps democratization.

When Judge Ricardo M. Urbina, an American federal district judge, dismissed a criminal case against four former Blackwater [now known as Xe Services] security guards involved in a 2007 shooting in Nisur Square in Baghdad, which cost 17 Iraqi civilians their lives, Baghdad was outraged. Though the indignation was amply justified, is there a silver lining to this disastrous decision for democratization in Iraq? From Judge Urbina's perspective, the prosecution handled the case very poorly, forcing him to dismiss charges. In the days since his controversial verdict, 10 victims grouped under the auspices of a single law firm, reached financial settlements with Blackwater, ostensibly because they were concerned that this was their last chance for any type of compensation from American sources. For example, Abdul Amir Rahim Jihan, who was shot three times in the legs, was set to receive US$30,000, a paltry sum but still better than costly litigation that would wither any potential gains. Naturally, Xe Services perceived the settlements as a good omen to turn the page of what everyone recognized was a major catastrophe of their own making. In fact, Xe Services were hoping to conclude similar resolutions for another group of 10 victims. Both the American judiciary solution as well as the firm's behavior angered Baghdad. Iraqi leaders were considering additional lawsuits. To be sure, the American judge dismissed the indictments on technicalities, which was a standard operating procedure within the legal system, allegedly because, in Urbina's educated opinion, the US Justice Department "knowingly endangered the viability of the prosecution." The good judge did not mince his words and was more concerned with the law, which protected American citizens and their constitutional rights against self-incrimination, rather than what happened that fatidic day. According to Spencer Ackerman, a popular blogger who keeps an eye on Washington shenanigans, concluded that such "legal technicalities C*[will mean] that C* the survivors of Nisur Square and the families of those killed, there will be no redress." In fact, he asserted, "the system just basically called them hajjis." Indeed, Urbina brushed aside the 17 Iraqi corpses in his court case because these victims simply "died" [the quotation marks are no accident given that these were not ordinary fatalities]. Little was said about the 20 or so who were seriously injured. Urbina was far more interested in the rights of his fellow citizens than the lives of disposable Iraqis. There were a variety of other points in the judicial decision, including the types of weapons used and their admissibility as evidence in a war zone, along with other technical concerns regarding witness recollections, rights and privileges. Unless one is an attorney that can make sense of the entire package, it becomes difficult to understand ramifications. Still, what is very easy to comprehend is that an American judge weighed lives, those of his countrymen versus those from Iraq, and made a choice as to how to proceed. Readers of this column are already familiar with earlier references to Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, by Jeremy Scahill, who wrote a brilliant book on the topic. Scahill investigated how an ideologically confused former US Navy Seal, Erik Prince, was entrusted with setting up a mercenary army. Conveniently, Prince hired American, Chilean, Honduran, Israeli, Nicaraguan and Russian recruits who specialized in assassinations and shady missions. While the firm provided "protection" to diplomats and Iraqi officials, it quickly evolved to offer other services too, including manufacturing special vehicles, specialized equipment, protection gear for troops and the building of plants and laboratories. Official Washington tolerated the wonder-boy can-do icon of the perpetual war, which professional military officers loathed on account of their oaths to the US Constitution, because of intrinsic fears. There was urgency and it was critical to skirt the law as best as possible. The World was neatly divided in two, those who stood with freedom, versus who stood with terrorists. This was sad, of course, and as the recent German inquiry into a report that the Central Intelligence Agency conceived of a plan with Blackwater to assassinate on foreign soil illustrated, the law was a secondary concern. Though the plot to waste Mamoun Darkazanli, a dual Syrian-German national, was never carried out, Berlin courts reviewed the evidence against Darkanzanli for allegedly helping fund the September 11 hijackers in Hamburg, before they ordered his release. Under German law, the alleged "conspiracy to commit a crime" by Blackwater posed a dilemma: how to remain an ally against terrorism while the agents of one country did not respect the laws and sovereignty of another? There is a lesson here for Iraq. One earns respect and one commits fully to preserving one's sovereignty. Germany did not, and does not, just obey American requests and is respected and sought out as an indispensable ally. Iraqi officials ought to practice this methodology to avoid the unfortunate fate that their citizens are expendable "hajjis." It is now up to Baghdad to make decisions. While it does not have the political will to classify Blackwater as a terrorist organization, it can at least end its contracts with Xe Services, until a satisfactory settlement is reached. It can also declare indicted Blackwater contractors accused of these murders as enemy combatants, seek their extradition to Iraq, perhaps even house them at Abu Ghraib under Iraqi law. That will earn the government respect and enhance its sovereignty.

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Publication:Soma Digest (Suleimanieh, Iraq)
Date:Apr 12, 2010
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