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The Contracted Security Services In Iraq.

There are about 126,000 private military "contractors" of various nationalities in Iraq who will stay put in the country as long as the US Congress continues funding the war. The 145,000 active-duty US forces are thus nearly matched by occupation personnel who come from such companies as Blackwater USA and the former Halliburton subsidiary KBR, which enjoy close personal and political ties with the Bush administration.

American experts critical of the Democrats' anti-war campaign say that, until Congress reins in these massive corporate forces and the huge US funding which goes into their coffers, partially withdrawing US troops may only set the stage for an increased use of private military companies "and their rent-a-gun" groups which stand to profit from any kind of privatised future "surge" in Iraq.

From the beginning of the US invasion, these contractors have been a major hidden story of the war, almost uncovered in the mainstream media and central to maintaining the US occupation of Iraq. While many of them perform logistical support activities for US troops, including the sort of laundry, fuel and mail delivery, and food-preparation work which once was performed by soldiers, tens of thousands of them are directly engaged in military and combat activities.

One of the experts, Jeremy Scahill, on May 1 wrote: "The Democratic leadership [in the US Congress] is once again gearing up for a great sellout on the Iraq war. While the wrangling over the US$124 billion Iraq supplemental spending bill is being headlined in the media as a 'showdown' or 'war' with the White House, it is hardly that. In plain terms, despite the impassioned sentiments of the anti-war electorate that brought the Democrats to power...[on Nov. 7], the congressional leadership has made clear its intention to keep funding the Iraq occupation, even though Sen. Harry Reid has declared that 'this war is lost'.

"For months, the Democrats' 'withdrawal' plan has come under fire from opponents of the occupation who say it doesn't stop the war, doesn't de-fund it, and ensures that tens of thousands of US troops will remain in Iraq beyond President George W Bush's second term. Such concerns were reinforced by Sen. Barack Obama's recent declaration that the Democrats will not cut off funding for the war, regardless of the president's policies. 'Nobody', he said, 'wants to play chicken with our troops'".

The New York Times recently reported: "Lawmakers said they expect that Congress and Mr Bush would eventually agree on a spending measure without the specific timetable" for partial withdrawal, which the White House has said would "guarantee defeat". In other words, Scahill wrote, "the appearance of a fierce debate, presidential veto and all, has largely been a show with a predictable outcome".

He added: "While all of this is troubling, there is another disturbing fact that speaks volumes about the Democrats' lack of insight into the nature of this unpopular war - and most Americans will know next to nothing about it. Even if the president didn't intend to veto their legislation, the Democrats' plan does almost nothing to address the second-largest force in Iraq - and it's not the British military".

According to the Government Accountability Office, there are now some 48,000 employees of private military companies in Iraq. Scahill wrote: "These not-quite GI Joes working for Blackwater and other major US firms can clear in a month what some active-duty soldiers make in a year".

The Chairman of the House of Representatives' Defence Appropriations Subcommittee, John Murtha, on May 1 was quoted as having said: "We got 126,000 contractors over there, some of them making more than the secretary of defence. How in the hell do you justify that?" House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman estimates that $4 bn in taxpayers' money has so far been spent in Iraq on armed "security" companies such as Blackwater - with tens of billions more going to other war companies such as KBR and Fluor for "logistical" support.

Jan Schakowsky of the House Intelligence Committee believes that up to 40 cents of every dollar spent on the occupation has gone to war contractors. With such massive government payouts, there is little incentive for these companies to minimise their footprint in the region and every incentive to look for more opportunities to profit - especially if, sooner or later, the "official" US presence shrinks, giving the public a sense of withdrawal, of a winding down of the war.

Erik Leaver of the Institute for Policy Studies says: Even if Bush were to sign the legislation the Democrats have passed, their plan "allows the president the leeway to escalate the use of military security contractors directly on the battlefield". It would "allow the president to continue the war using a mercenary army".

Scahill said: "The crucial role of contractors in continuing the occupation was driven home in January when...[Lt Gen David] Petraeus... cited private forces as essential to winning the war. In his confirmation hearings in the Senate, he claimed they filled a gap attributable to insufficient troop levels available to an over-stretched military". Petraeus told the senators that, along with Bush's official troop surge, the "tens of thousands of contract security forces give me the reason to believe that we can accomplish the mission".

Petraeus admitted that he had at times not been guarded in Iraq by the US military, but "secured by contract security". Scahill said: "Such widespread use of contractors, especially in mission-critical operations, should have raised red flags among lawmakers". After a recent trip to Iraq, retired General Barry McCaffery said: "We are overly dependant on civilian contractors. In extreme danger - they will not fight".

But Scahill said: "It is, however, the political rather than military uses of these forces that should be cause for the greatest concern. Contractors have provided the White House with political cover, allowing for a back-door near-doubling of US forces in Iraq through the private sector, while masking the full extent of the human costs of the occupation. Although contractor deaths are not effectively tallied, at least 770 contractors have been killed in Iraq and at least another 7,700 injured. These numbers are not included in any official (or media) toll of the war.

"More significant, there is absolutely no effective system of oversight or accountability governing contractors and their operations, nor is there any effective law - military or civilian - being applied to their activities. They have not been subjected to military courts-martial (despite a recent congressional attempt to place them under the Uniform Code of Military Justice), nor have they been prosecuted in US civilian courts - and, no matter what their acts in Iraq, they cannot be prosecuted in Iraqi courts.

"Before L Paul Bremer, Bush's viceroy in Baghdad, left Iraq in 2004, he issued an edict known as Order 17. It immunized contractors from prosecution in Iraq, which today is like the wild west, full of roaming Iraqi death squads and scores of unaccountable, heavily armed mercenaries, ex-military men from around the world, working for the occupation.

"For the community of contractors in Iraq, immunity and impunity are welded together. Despite the tens of thousands of contractors passing through Iraq and several well-documented incidents involving alleged contractor abuses, only two individuals have been ever indicted for crimes there. One was charged with stabbing a fellow contractor, while the other pleaded guilty to the possession of child-pornography images on his computer at Abu Ghraib prison. While dozens of American soldiers have been court-martialed - 64 on murder-related charges - not a single armed contractor has been prosecuted for a crime against an Iraqi. In some cases, where contractors were alleged to have been involved in crimes or deadly incidents, their companies whisked them out of Iraq to safety.

"One armed contractor recently informed the Washington Post, 'We were always told, from the very beginning, if for some reason something happened and the Iraqis were trying to prosecute us, they would put you in the back of a car and sneak you out of the country in the middle of the night'. According to another, US contractors in Iraq had their own motto: 'What happens here today stays here today'.

"These private contractors are really an arm of the administration and its policies", argued Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who has called for a withdrawal of all US contractors from Iraq, noting: "They charge whatever they want with impunity. There's no accountability as to how many people they have, as to what their activities are".

Scahill wrote: "While some congressional Democrats have publicly expressed grave concerns about the widespread use of these private forces and a handful have called for their withdrawal, the party leadership has done almost nothing to stop, or even curb, the use of mercenary corporations in Iraq. As it stands, the Bush administration and the industry have little to fear from Congress on this score, despite the unseating of the Republican majority.

"On two central fronts, accountability and funding, the Democrats' approach has been severely flawed, playing into the agendas of both the White House and the war contractors. Some Democrats, for instance, are pushing accountability legislation that would actually require more US personnel to deploy to Iraq as part of a Federal Bureau of Investigation".

Scahill focused on the case of Blackwater USA, saying: "A decade ago, the company barely existed; and yet its 'diplomatic security' contracts since mid-2004, with the State Department alone, total more than $750 million. Today, Blackwater has become nothing short of the Bush administration's well-paid Praetorian Guard. It protects the US ambassador and other senior officials in Iraq as well as visiting congressional delegations; it trains Afghan security forces and was deployed in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region, setting up a 'command and control' center just kilometers from the Iranian border. The company was also hired to protect Federal Emergency Management Agency operations and facilities in New Orleans, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina, where it raked in $240,000 a day from the American taxpayer, billing $950 a day per Blackwater contractor.

"Since September 11, 2001, the company has invested its lucrative government payouts in building an impressive private army. At present, it has forces deployed in nine countries and boasts a database of 21,000 additional troops at the ready, a fleet of more than 20 aircraft, including helicopter gunships and the world's largest private military facility - a 2,800-hectare compound near the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina. It recently opened a new facility in Illinois ("Blackwater North") and is fighting local opposition to a third planned domestic facility near San Diego ("Blackwater West") by the Mexican border. It is also manufacturing an armored vehicle (nicknamed the "Grizzly") and surveillance blimps.

"The man behind this empire is Erik Prince, a secretive, conservative Christian, ex-navy special-force multimillionaire who bankrolls Bush and his allies with major campaign contributions. Among Blackwater's senior executives are Cofer Black, former head of counter-terrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency; Robert Richer, former deputy director of operations at the CIA; Joseph Schmitz, former Pentagon inspector general; and an impressive array of other retired military and intelligence officials. Company executives recently announced the creation of a new private intelligence company, 'Total Intelligence', to be headed by Black and Richer.

"For years, Blackwater's operations have been shrouded in secrecy. Emboldened by the culture of impunity enjoyed by the private sector in the Bush administration's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blackwater's founder has talked of creating a 'contractor brigade' to support US military operations and fancies his forces the 'FedEx' of the 'national-security apparatus'.

Scahill concluded: "As the country debates an Iraq withdrawal, Congress owes it to the US public to take down the curtain of secrecy surrounding these shadow forces that undergird the US public deployment in Iraq. Bush likes to say that de-funding the war would undercut the troops. Here's the truth of the matter: continued funding of the Iraq war ensures tremendous profits for politically connected war contractors.

"If Congress is serious about ending the occupation, it needs to rein in the unaccountable companies that make it possible and only stand to profit from its escalation".

(Jeremy Scahill is the author of the New York Times best-seller Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is currently a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute).
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Date:May 7, 2007
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