Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Privatizing a war

Washington Post:
Last Christmas Day in Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad received a furious phone call from Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. An American -- drunk, armed, wandering through the Green Zone after a party -- had shot and killed one of his personal bodyguards the night before, Mahdi said. He wanted to see Khalilzad right away.

At the vice president's home, Khalilzad found the slain guard's family assembled. Mahdi demanded the names of the American and his employer. And he wanted the man turned over to the Iraqi government.

After consulting with the embassy's legal officer, Khalilzad identified the shooter as Andrew J. Moonen, an employee of Blackwater USA, the company that provides security for U.S. diplomats in Baghdad. But he would not deliver Moonen himself. Within 36 hours of the shooting, Blackwater and the embassy had shipped him out of the country.

"As you can imagine," the embassy's Diplomatic Security office said in an e-mail to its Washington headquarters the day of Moonen's departure, "this has serious implications."

But as with previous killings by contractors, the case was handled with apologies and a payoff. Blackwater fired Moonen and fined him $14,697 -- the total of his back pay, a scheduled bonus and the cost of his plane ticket home, according to Blackwater documents. The amount nearly equaled the $15,000 the company agreed to give the Iraqi guard's family.

Ten months later, however -- after Blackwater guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle on Sept. 16 -- the State Department can no longer quietly manage the consequences of having its own private army in Iraq. The FBI is investigating the incident, Baghdad has vowed to overturn a law shielding contractors from prosecution, and congressional critics have charged State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security with failing to supervise Blackwater and other security companies under its authority.

The shootings have also reopened long-standing, bitter arguments between the State Department and the Pentagon, which over the years have feuded over policies including the decision to invade Iraq and the treatment of detainees. Such broad disagreements have frequently played out over a narrow question: Who is responsible for the safety of U.S. civilians serving in Iraq?

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