Editorial: Blackwater must be accountable

The MetroWest Daily News

One of the most important untold stories of the Iraq war is the unprecedented role of armed civilian security contractors. The oft-discussed troop force totals - currently 160,000 U.S. troops - don't include the estimated 30,000 civilians doing jobs performed by uniformed troops in other conflicts.

The contractors guard the U.S. ambassador and even some Iraqi ministers. They guard military and civilian convoys. They carry M-16 rifles and grenade launchers, drive SUVs with machine guns mounted on them and have their own fleet of helicopters.

We're hearing of them now because some employees of the largest of these firms, Blackwater USA, have been accused of killing 10 innocent Iraqis in a Baghdad shootout. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered Blackwater out of the country, though there is some doubt about whether he can do that.

President George W. Bush said yesterday that he still doesn't know if the Iraqis killed in the altercation were innocent and an investigation by Iraqi and U.S. authorities is underway.

But Iraqis won't be surprised if the charges are true. They have a name for these contractors: Mossad, after the Israeli secret police.

"They kill innocent people in the street," Hameed Hussein, a Baghdad resident told Agence France-Presse. "These are not security forces but rather forces to kill Iraqis. They are frenzied dogs."

"They are impolite and do not respect people," an Iraqi police officer said. "They bump other people's cars to frighten them and shout at anyone who approaches them."

Security contractors who work for other firms agree with the Iraqis' description of the Blackwater gang. "They are crazy, aggressive and arrogant," one contractor told AFP. "They are more aggressive than American soldiers. They ride around in their vehicles pointing their weapons at people in the street or in cars. They give us all a bad name."

Blackwater employees are nearly all former U.S. military troops, but they now operate outside the chain of command - and make a lot more money than soldiers. Blackwater says it pays its contractors between $450 and $650 a day. Competition from Blackwater is one reason the military is having to offer re-enlistment bonuses as high as $40,000.

There's another benefit Blackwater employees enjoy: legal immunity. Unlike real American troops, they don't fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Under an order issued by J. Paul Bremer when the Coalition Provisional Authority was running Iraq, civilian contractors cannot be tried under Iraqi law either.

Iraqis don't distinguish between civilian contractors and U.S. troops. To them, they are all Americans, all occupiers. And, since they are working for American taxpayers - Blackwater USA has $800 million in government contracts - we are responsible for them whether they are officially members of the military or not.

Whatever their legal status, Blackwater and other contractors represent the United States, and the United States should hold them accountable for whatever they do in our name.