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The Blackwater scandal in Iraq.

How is it that private companies like Blackwater operate in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

Mercenaries are not a new phenomenon. But after September 11, there was an explosion of private militias because the American Army found itself stretched too lean: by intervening in several theaters around the world, it found itself in difficulty to assure troop rotations and was unable to obtain enough new recruits.

The result is that private militias count over 100,000 men in Iraq, which constitutes the second-largest contingent after the American Army, and perhaps even the largest... These private guards assure the security of convoys, diplomats, etc. and sometimes go so far as to take the place of the regular American Army. That's what happened in 2004 during the Mahdi Army offensive in Nadjaf: men from Blackwater, which is the most powerful and controversial of the private companies operating in Iraq, found themselves on the front line and fired on the order of the regular American Army command!

Moreover, there is ever more rancor from the Army. These mercenaries are better equipped; they have armored cars; they're better paid: from $600 to $1000 a day when regular Army soldiers are paid a pittance. Suddenly, soldiers are tempted to quit the regular army to join the militias. And more generally, the Army feels that the American government trusts these militias better than its own military forces. But the militias' actions on the ground are problematic: they have contributed, for example, to damaging relations between Americans and Iraqis. It was following the murder of four Blackwater mercenaries in 2004 that the Battle of Fallujah - a key moment in the Iraq conflict - took place...

The private company Blackwater is being sued in an American court for war crimes by a human rights association in the name of one survivor and the families of three Iraqi victims of the shooting that took place September 16 in Baghdad that involves Blackwater men. Will this inaugurate the end of the impunity that has reigned up until now for these militias?

In Iraq, these militias act, in fact, with total impunity. They don't fall under Iraqi law, but under extra-territorial jurisdiction only. While the regular Army - US soldiers - must answer for their actions, if only before their own hierarchy. The result is that, although there have already been numerous unbelievable incidents involving these cowboy mercenaries with their shaved heads, sun glasses etc., of the over 100,000 militia men present in Iraq, not a single one has been prosecuted up until now!

Yet, these Blackwater men are particularly violent: the army has already reported numerous war crimes committed by them; they fire "preventively" etc. They seem to be allowed to do anything. They are tough guys and what's very worrying is that people know Blackwater is not only a militia, but also an ideological group: its founder belongs to the fundamentalist ultra-Christian right that thinks Bush isn't tough enough...

They operate in complete opacity, refusing to account to the legal system or to Congress. Although, since the election that gave the majority to the Democrats, members of Congress are asking them to answer for themselves more and more. And if the Bush administration appeals to this shadow army more and more, that is also to circumvent Congress... Recourse to these militias poses serious problems for democracy since they specifically offer the means to circumvent democratic and also diplomatic rules. On the legal level, this is not the first controversy concerning them. Moreover, Blackwater has already begun to respond by attacking victims' families... And by hiring very powerful lawyers, like Kenneth Star, world-famous since the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair...

How is it that these companies, beginning with Blackwater, are so powerful?

Blackwater is not only ultra-powerful in Iraq, but is also building itself up in the United States: thus, the company sent its men to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. These terrifying mercenaries who are formed for wars had the mission of preventing looting with the order to fire on looters! The company has also intervened in southern Sudan and now wants to send its mercenaries to Darfur.

What does this company do to bag so many contracts? If it gets away with building itself up this way, it's surely because it has powerful support and connections within the Bush administration. Thus, surprisingly, the company's vice president is a former CIA mainstay. We know that Blackwater is financed to a large extent by the American State Department; that's its biggest client. But there's also the Pentagon, USAID etc. From which one may predict - and the signs are beginning to be numerous - a scandal of the same sort as with Halliburton...

Translation: Leslie Thatcher .

Sara Daniel

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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