Updated: 12:33 a.m. ET Aug 12, 2007
There are now nearly as many private contractors in Iraq as there are U.S. soldiers — and a large percentage of them are private security guards equipped with automatic weapons, body armor, helicopters and bullet-proof trucks.
They operate with little or no supervision, accountable only to the firms employing them. And as the country has plummeted toward anarchy and civil war, this private army has been accused of indiscriminately firing at American and Iraqi troops, and of shooting to death an unknown number of Iraqi citizens who got too close to their heavily armed convoys.
Not one has faced charges or prosecution.
There is great confusion among legal experts and military officials about what laws — if any — apply to Americans in this force of at least 48,000.
Murky set of rules
They operate in a decidedly gray legal area. Unlike soldiers, they are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Under a special provision secured by American-occupying forces, they are exempt from prosecution by Iraqis for crimes committed there.
The security firms insist their employees are governed by internal conduct rules and by use-of-force protocols established by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. occupation government that ruled Iraq for 14 months following the invasion.
But many soldiers on the ground — who earn in a year what private guards can earn in just one month — say their private counterparts should answer to a higher authority, just as they do. More than 60 U.S. soldiers in Iraq have been court-martialed on murder-related charges involving Iraqi citizens.
Some military analysts and government officials say the contractors could be tried under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which covers crimes committed abroad. But so far, that law has not been applied to them.
Security firms earn more than $4 billion in government contracts, but the government doesn’t know how many private soldiers it has hired, or where all of them are, according to the Government Accountability Office. And the companies are not required to report violent incidents involving their employees.
Security guards now constitute nearly 50 percent of all private contractors in Iraq — a number that has skyrocketed since the 2003 invasion, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said rebuilding Iraq was the top priority. But an unforeseen insurgency, and hundreds of terrorist attacks have pushed the country into chaos. Security is now Iraq’s greatest need.
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Efforts to boost accountability
The wartime numbers of private guards are unprecedented — as are their duties, many of which have traditionally been done by soldiers. They protect U.S. military operations and have guarded high-ranking officials including Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Baghdad. They also protect visiting foreign officials and thousands of construction projects.
At times, they are better equipped than military units.
Their presence has also pushed the war’s direction. The 2004 battle of Fallujah — an unsuccessful military assault in which an estimated 27 U.S. Marines were killed, along with an unknown number of civilians — was retaliation for the killing, maiming and burning of four Blackwater guards in that city by a mob of insurgents.
“I understand this is war,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., whose efforts for greater contractor accountability led to an amendment in next year’s Pentagon spending bill. “But that’s absolutely no excuse for letting this very large force of armed private employees, dare I say mercenaries, run around without any accountability to anyone.”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20231579/