'We'll revoke Al-Maliki's licence first'
The privatisation of security in Iraq threatens more than innocent civilians, reports Nermeen Al-Mufti
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Former Iraqi insurgents, members of the Sunni Anbar Awakening, and US army soldiers guard a meeting between Sunni and Shia tribal leaders and clerics in Al-Duwanem, southwest of Baghdad
The killing of 11 civilians in Baghdad two weeks ago has once again put Blackwater on the spot. The US security firm first came into the public eye in early April 2004, when four of its personnel were killed and mutilated by mobs in Falluja. Although Iraqi religious parties denounced the attacks at the time, Bush gave the town four days to deliver the perpetrators before ordering an all-out attack, one in which thousands of Falluja inhabitants perished.
The Iraqi government would like to see Blackwater brought to account. But that is not going to be easy. The spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Abdul-Karim Khalif, says that the ministry provided Iraqi courts with evidence against Blackwater concerning other shootings over the past seven months. In one shooting last February, three of the guards of Al-Iraqiya television were killed. On 9 September, five Iraqis were killed when Blackwater personnel fired at them near the municipality building in Baghdad. Three days later, five other citizens were wounded in another shooting on Palestine Street. Blackwater, the Iraqi Interior Ministry maintains, is also involved in the killing of an Iraqi journalist near the Iraqi Foreign Ministry building in Baghdad in February, as well as the killing of a citizen near the Iraqi Interior Ministry building in Baghdad in May.
"Most of the laws passed by Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator of Iraq under US occupation, remain in force. Some of these laws violate Iraqi sovereignty, including a law that prevents Iraqis from prosecuting any American or any individual who cooperates with America or the coalition authorities, whether civilian or military," Abu Abdullah, an Iraqi lawyer, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Following the recent incident in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki threatened to revoke Blackwater's licence. What he later discovered was that the company was working in Iraq without a licence. The Americans weren't impressed by Al-Maliki's uncharacteristic boldness. "We'll revoke Al-Maliki's licence before he revokes Blackwater's licence," a US official quipped.
Within four days of the incident, Blackwater was back in operation. A spokesman for Operation Imposing Law said that the services of private contractors in Iraq cannot be discontinued without creating a security vacuum. According to media reports, the Iraqis and Americans have formed an eight-member committee to investigate the Blackwater incident. The committee is co-chaired by a top US diplomat and the Iraqi defence minister.
Blackwater has over 20,000 personnel in Iraq, all well- armed and backed with armoured vehicles and aircraft. The company has military equipment comparable to that used by the US army and its pilots fly reconnaissance missions over Baghdad on a daily basis. Last April, one of its helicopters was shot down during clashes in Al-Fadl district of Baghdad.
According to press reports, about 34 per cent of the budget the US government initially allocated for the reconstruction of Iraq has been diverted to private security firms. The "privatisation" of the war in Iraq is well underway, The Los Angeles Times reported. In his book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill links the modern security firm to the Knights of Malta, an offshoot of the Knights Templar. Blackwater's employees, he argues, share the same religious zeal of ancient crusaders.
"Private security companies -- whether American, British, or South African -- do not differ much from Iraq's sectarian militias. These companies act as if they were entitled to commit any crime on the pretext of self-defence," Abu Abdullah said. US federal authorities are currently investigating the involvement of Blackwater employees in smuggling weapons into Iraq.
Meanwhile, US airborne troops shot dead seven Iraqi civilians in the predominantly Sunni town of Al-Mahmoudiya, 20km south of Baghdad. Little else is known about the operation. But US authorities regularly claim that such attacks are part of their offensive against Al-Qaeda. Similar operations take place in Sadr City frequently, the target in that case being the Mahdi Army.
Prime Minister Al-Maliki is in New York for the meetings of the UN General Assembly. He is expected to meet with the foreign ministers of countries neighbouring Iraq as well as with US President George W Bush. In Baghdad, Al-Maliki's government continues to operate with 16 ministers, down from 30, after the resignation of the ministers representing the Sadr Group, the Accordance Front, and the Iraqi List. The latter groups are planning to form a united front and challenge Al-Maliki's government in a parliamentary vote of confidence. Al-Maliki's supporters have asked Ayatollah Al-Sistani to intercede with the withdrawing parties and get them back into the government.
According to the Iraqi Red Crescent, over two million Iraqis have left their homes due to sectarian violence. About 250 Sunni families were forced out of Al-Washwash section of Baghdad in the past two weeks.
Four cholera cases have been reported in Baghdad this week, amid fears of an epidemic. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1,500 cholera cases have been discovered in the country since 20 August. Polluted water supplies and poor sewage facilities are blamed for the spread of the disease. Iraq has no health minister, its last minister having fled to the US in June after being accused of involvement in sectarian violence.