BACK IN IRAQ: THE ‘WHORES OF WAR’
America’s hired guns in Iraq have been called ‘the coalition of the billing’, but Blackwater mercenaries are accused of more than just taking the money. Investigations Editor Neil Mackay examines the links between the security firm and the US political elite
EVEN FOR Blackwater, it was an atrocity too far. If an Iraqi government report is to be believed, Blackwater, a US mercenary company which is unofficially the world’s largest “for hire” private army, indiscriminately and without provocation opened fire earlier this month on civilians in a Baghdad street, killing at least 20 people.
Iraq immediately revoked the firm’s licence to operate in the country and moved to expel its staff and prosecute those responsible for the shootings, but Blackwater’s activities have since resumed.
This coincides with the release of a US Embassy report on the September 16 shooting, obtained by the Washington Post and described by a State Department official as a “first blush” account. It details the events, as given by Blackwater guards, and has stirred controversy in Iraq and Washington and prompted an inquiry into the role of Blackwater and other private security firms in Iraq.
According to Blackwater, its mercenaries, known as mercs, were guarding a diplomatic convoy when it came under fire. The Iraqi government, however, insists there was no ambush and that Blackwater troops fired at a car when it failed to stop.
“There was no shooting against the convoy,” said Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman. “There was no fire from anyone.” Dabbagh said that after opening fire on a couple and a child in a car the guards “started shooting randomly”. The family were incinerated in the car.
It is not the first time Blackwater has been at the centre of controversy. But what is Blackwater? Who owns it? And why would the former soldiers working for it think they could get away with murder in broad daylight?
Despite being implicated in several controversial killings, the company is the Pentagon’s most favoured contractor and has effective diplomatic immunity in Iraq. Referred to as “the most powerful mercenary army in the world”, both the US ambassador to Iraq and the army’s top generals hold it in regard.
On Christmas Eve last year, a Blackwater employee allegedly shot dead the bodyguard of one of Iraq’s vice-presidents, Adel Abdul Mahdi. The Blackwater employee had been drinking heavily in the Green Zone and tried to enter an area where Iraqi officials lived. After the killing, he left Iraq without facing prosecution. In May this year, a Blackwater employee shot dead an Iraqi civilian who was said to be driving too close to a security convoy. The company insisted the guard acted lawfully.
The company, based near the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, was co-founded by Erik Prince, a billionaire right-wing fundamentalist. At its HQ, Blackwater has trained more than 20,000 mercenaries to operate as freelancers in wars around the world. Prince is a big bankroller of the Republican Party – giving a total of around $275,550 – and was a young intern in the White House of George Bush Sr. Under George Bush Jr, Blackwater received lucrative no-bid contracts for work in Iraq, Afghanistan and New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. His firm has pulled down contracts worth at least $320 million in Iraq alone.
Jeremy Scahill, who wrote the book Blackwater: The Rise Of The World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, says when Bush was re-elected in 2004, one company boss sent this email to staff: “Bush Wins, Four More Years!! Hooyah!!”
One Blackwater employment policy is to hire ex-administration big-hitters into key positions. It hired Cofer Black, a former State Department co-ordinator for counter-terrorism and former head of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre, as vice-chairman. Robert Richer, a former CIA divisional head, joined Blackwater as vice-president of intelligence in 2005.
Scahill says the firm is “the front line in what the Bush administration views as the necessary revolution in military affairs” – privatisation of as many roles as possible. Senator John Warner, former head of the Senate armed services committee, once called Blackwater the “silent partner in the global war on terror”.
Scahill went on to call Prince a “neo-crusader, a Christian supremacist, who has been given hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts this is a man who espouses Christian supremacy, and he has been allowed to create a private army to defend Christendom around the world. He refers to Blackwater as the FedEx of the Pentagon. He says if you really want a package to get somewhere, do you go with the postal service or do you go with FedEx? This is how these people view themselves.”
Although the company was set up in 1996, it wasn’t until 2004 that the world really took notice of it. On March 31 that year, four Blackwater mercs foolishly drove through Fallujah – an insurgent stronghold. They were shot, hauled from their cars, burned, mutilated, dragged through the streets and bits of their bodies were hung from a bridge (dubbed the Blackwater Bridge).
At least 22 Blackwater mercs have died in Iraq. To date more than 428 contractors working for more than two dozen firms have died there.
In January this year, five Blackwater mercs died when one of the firm’s helicopters (Blackwater has a private fleet of 20 planes and helicopter gunships) was shot down in Baghdad. It later emerged that four of the five crew were found with execution-style bullet wounds to the head. On April 21, 2005, seven Blackwater mercs died in two separate attacks in Baghdad and Ramadi.
The Fallujah murders turned Blackwater into a kind of patriotic poster boy, with the war lobby portraying its mercs as heroes fighting for America in the face of bloodthirsty killers. By the end of 2004, Blackwater had grown by 600%.
PRESIDENT Bush said the killings, which helped pave the way for the bloody siege and capture of Fallujah by US marines in late 2004, were “a challenge to America’s resolve”. That admiration for Blackwater doesn’t quite tally, however, with the feelings of the families of the four dead mercenaries.
Katy Helvenston, whose 38-year-old son Scott was killed, said: “Blackwater sent my son and the other three into Fallujah knowing there was a very good possibility this could happen. Iraqis did it, and it doesn’t get any more horrible than what they did to my son. But I hold Blackwater responsible 1000%.”
Her lawyer, Daniel Callahan, who is suing the firm on behalf of the families, said: “What we have is something worse than the wild, wild west going on in Iraq. Blackwater is able to operate over there free from any oversight that would typically exist in a civilised society.”
Blackwater is accused of “doing things on the cheap”. Rather than three men to a vehicle – a driver, a navigator and a rear gunner – there were only two in the Fallujah incident; the cars were “soft-skinned”, not armoured. “They were sitting ducks,” said Callahan.
The four men didn’t have a detailed map, so they drove through the centre of Fallujah, and there had been no adequate risk assessment before the journey. Helvenston wasn’t even supposed to be on that mission – he was meant to be guarding top-level US diplomats.
Lawyers say the four “would be alive today” had they not gone unprepared into the mission. After the deaths, the families asked for paperwork about what happened. They were told if they wanted the documents, they’d have to sue. Katy Helvenston said: “Blackwater seems to understand money. That’s the only thing they understand. They have no values, they have no morals. They’re the whores of war.”
Blackwater counter-sued the families, saying they breached contract by blaming the company for the deaths of their loved ones. Blackwater wants $10m. The company also hired lawyer Fred F Fielding, currently counsel to the US president, to represent it. It then took on Joseph E Schmitz, former inspector general at the Pentagon, as its in-house counsel. Later, Ken Starr came on board – the prosecutor of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Blackwater has exploited the Bush presidency’s desire to out-source government functions. Dan Guttman, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University and a consultant on private security firms for the Centre for Public Integrity, says firms like Blackwater are now “part and parcel of Pentagon operations … performing what citizens consider the stuff of government: planning, policy writing, budgeting, intelligence gathering, nation building”. How taxpayers’ money is being spent, however, seems to have been overlooked.
Blackwater has also hired at least 60 Chilean commandos trained under the Pinochet regime. The irony for the US army is that many of its best soldiers leave to join organisations like Blackwater where the pay is as high as $1000 a day. This then puts more pressure on the government to use private contractors due to military staff shortages.
Blackwater – like other military contractors – currently has the same immunity from prosecution in Iraq as America’s conventional armed forces and diplomats. However, the Iraqi authorities are now set to repeal the immunity laws. Blackwater’s “troops” can shoot to kill and there are plenty of allegations of wrongful killings against merc firms in Iraq.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also ordered a review board to visit Iraq this week to assess US diplomatic security practices there following the Baghdad shooting. It is expected to present an interim report by Friday.
But the firm’s standing in the eyes of the US administration remains high because of incidents such as the attack on a US government compound in Najaf which saw eight Blackwater staff fight off a heavy assault by insurgents without the support of conventional forces.
Blackwater’s government contracts were awarded under the State Department’s Worldwide Personal Protective Service programme. An audit found the company tried to inflate its profits. The government has so far paid $100m more to Blackwater than was budgeted for. Former assistant defence secretary Philip Coyle says the privatisation of security is “insidious”, but the State Department says there is a need for such services as the government is “unable to provide protective services on a long-term basis”.
Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute, an expert on mercenary firms, describes the use of Blackwater and other private military companies as “the coalition of the billing”. Sometimes, though, it seems the rank-and-file mercs might be shortchanged. There have been allegations by Colombian counter-insurgency troops that Blackwater promised them $4000 a month but they only earned $1000 a month.
Colonel Thomas X Hammes, a senior fellow at the National Defence University, says Blackwater “made enemies everywhere”, and a congressional committee is looking at whether Blackwater “illegally smuggled weapons into Iraq”.
During the recent temporary suspension of Blackwater’s operations in Iraq, America cancelled all diplomatic movement outside the Green Zone – evidence of how integral the firm is to American operations, and how serious a suspension of its licence would be for the US. The travel cancellation came despite claims by America that attacks in Iraq have declined due to this year’s troop surge. Blackwater insists its men “did their job to defend human life”.
US officials went into overdrive in a bid to persuade the Iraqis not to throw Blackwater out. With 30,000 mercs working for 28 firms contracted by the US government in Iraq, the Blackwater incident could have wide-reaching ramifications.
Iraq is now moving towards scrapping Order 17, established by the US under Iraq administrator Paul Bremer, which exempts foreign contractors from Iraqi law. But Abdul Sattar Ghafour Bairaqdar, of Iraq’s Supreme Judiciary Council, said the guards could stand trial, regardless.
Brigadier General Abdul Kareen Khalaf, of the interior ministry, said: “Blackwater committed a crime. They carried out a flagrant assault.” Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser, said the shootings were a “golden opportunity” for the government to “radically review” the laws surrounding foreign mercenaries.