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Iraq contractors say they'll keep working without immunity

Los Angeles Times (2007-12-09) Christian Berthelsen

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By Christian Berthelsen, Los Angeles Times | December 9, 2007

BAGHDAD - The security contractor settled into the back of the armored Mercedes parked under the Crossed Swords monument, and contemplated the question: If the Iraqi government follows through with its plan to withdraw legal immunity for private guards operating in the country, would he continue to work here?

"I can tell you there's a lot of guys that are worried about it," said the burly former policeman, now in his fourth year in Iraq, who works for an American company that guards high-level US military officials on daily missions around Baghdad. But, he added, "I get paid a hell of a lot of money to be here. I'm in their country, and I need to respect that.

"It's not going to make a difference in how I operate, and it's absolutely not going to cause me to leave," he said.

So it goes for the legions of armed guards that make up the private security forces in Iraq. In the wake of a Sept. 16 shooting involving the security company Blackwater USA that left 17 Iraqis dead and 24 wounded, along with a number of other recent events, public rage about the shootings has boiled over and the government has aggressively pursued new efforts to bring private guards under control.

Chief among them is to withdraw the immunity from judgment in Iraqi courts that had been bestowed on the contractors by the Coalition Provisional Authority that helped set up the new Iraqi government after the US-led invasion in 2003.

Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki's Cabinet has approved the immunity rescission, and it awaits adoption by the full Iraqi Parliament. But on Nov. 19, the Iraqi government signaled the seriousness of the intent to move forward with the new oversight, arresting 43 people involved with a security convoy that shot and wounded a pedestrian as she crossed a street in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karada.

In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, four guards and four executives from different companies in the secretive world of security contracting agreed to share their thoughts about the impending crackdown on the grounds that neither they nor their businesses' identities would be disclosed.

Generally, there was a sense of resignation among the guards about the immunity repeal and a reluctant acknowledgment that it is probably necessary, because the legal protection appeared to have given some a sense of impunity - or, at a minimum, a willingness to cut corners when it came to rules of engagement or escalation of force. None said they believed they would receive a fair trial in an Iraqi court, but none said they would quit the business and leave the country.

"From an individual point of view, I don't think there will be a great reaction, because a lot of operators live for the day or the week, and as long as the money's there, there will always be people willing to work in this environment," said another contractor, who works for a British company. Losing immunity "does make people think twice, but when you bear in mind the personal risk people take in working here, it's probably low down on their list of priorities," he said.

Among some, there was also frustration with the high-profile American security companies, particularly Blackwater, whom they accuse of an overaggressive attitude that created more problems than necessary, and with Iraqis who continue to approach convoys rapidly and provoke guards to fire despite more than four years of warnings.

Some said the US government has not done enough to strike a balance that would hold contractors accountable for unjustified shootings while also ensuring complaints would be heard fairly. And one said the debate over security company conduct was a luxury afforded by the newfound stability in the country, and one that was not contemplated when hundreds of Iraqis died on a daily basis.

Although the guards expressed a willingness to continue working despite the new legal risk, one executive, who works for an American business under contract to the US government, said the company would have to reexamine whether it would remain operating in Iraq if immunity for its guards is withdrawn. In two cases, the company's guards fired on and disabled vehicles that turned out to be car bombs driven by suicide bombers. But the company also has been accused of killing drivers who were found to pose no risk.

"We have to seriously think about whether we could do business in Iraq under those conditions," the executive said. "I think under normal conditions, no company would have a problem with its employees being accountable to local law. But the reason we're in Iraq is because normal conditions don't exist."

One contractor said the United States might have to hire the private guards and make them government employees so they would continue to receive diplomatic immunity.

And some companies are said to be considering installing video cameras on convoy vehicles to support their contentions that episodes involving the use of force occur in response to threats. © Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Topic revision: r1 - 07 Feb 2008, CathyMiller
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