At Large

The Wild West in Baghdad

What's behind the attack on Blackwater USA?

By 9.27.07

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It is interesting and not a little disturbing that the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, which long has been known as a tool of Shia militia operations, has chosen this moment to attempt to undercut U.S. security operations by launching an attack on the activities of American security contractors such as Blackwater USA.

What makes this matter worse is the complicity of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who immediately supported the Interior Ministry's claim of indiscriminate killing of Iraqi civilians by a Blackwater protection team guarding a State Department convoy in the Mansour district of Baghdad. Maliki, acting with a swiftness heretofore totally absent from his usual style of governance, rushed to condemn the American bodyguards and ordered the Blackwater firm decertified from operating in Iraq.

American security contractors providing armed protection for Iraqi, American, and third country nationals have had only two weapons available to them: The first and most obvious are the automatic weapons they openly display, and second is the money they distribute as bribes to local police and militia forces to ensure area security through intelligence, firepower, and neighborhood tactical control.

The State Department motorcade of SUV's was crossing Nisoor Square in western Baghdad when an explosion occurred, some small arms fire erupted, and the Blackwater guards immediately returned fire as the small convoy sped on. It's the sort of thing that has happened far too often. The Iraqi Interior Ministry investigated and announced eight people were killed outright, three more died in the hospital, twelve others were wounded. No American casualties were reported.

In the days following the PM's initial harsh reaction the prime minister's office denied that Maliki had ordered the decertification and had not decided on the legal steps to be taken. An anonymous spokesman quoted by the Associated Press suggested financial compensation and an apology might suffice. The political damage had been done, though, and Blackwater, now referred to pejoratively as "mercenaries" by some American and European commentators, was placed on the political and public relations defensive.

In a suspicious coincidence of timing, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani called publicly for the release of an Iranian who had been captured by U.S. special ops forces in the Kurdish capital of Sulaimaniyah. The Iranian was charged with being a key member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' spec ops unit known as Al Quds. Officially Talabani was upset because this Iranian operative was taken without first coordinating with the Kurdish provincial government.

It has been known for years that the Kurds have maintained covert contacts with Tehran, but having the president of Iraq, himself a Kurd, speak out demanding the release of an obviously important Iranian secret operative was more than surprising. One must question the timing of this action occurring in juxtaposition to PM Maliki's own attack on the leading American security firm in Iraq.

Urged continuingly by the Americans to energize and reform their government, the Iraqi leadership has begun to push back. There is strong political pressure to curtail American influence on internal security affairs while at the same time not diminishing U.S. commitment to protect Iraq militarily and economically. The office of the president and prime minister, in separate security concerns, sent a signal not to be ignored.

NONETHELESS, BLACKWATER AND THE OTHER FIRMS that supply civilian contractors providing personal and physical security in Iraq have been a necessary fact of life since after the initial invasion, and remain so. The fact is that this form of protection cannot be provided by Coalition forces and certainly not the Iraqi government.

Selected Iraqi personnel have been an integral part of the protection teams where possible, but only after careful vetting. Here is the crux of the problem from the Iraqi government side. They want to control the choice of personnel of this special cadre of law enforcement as well as the political aspects of national security operations.

The arrogance of the private contractors, supposedly epitomized by Blackwater agents, from time to time has been a contributing factor. However, it must be realized that these former police and military experts augmented by ex- Special Forces and Seals have had to face and overcome the heavily armed mafias of Iraqi sectarian, political and tribal organizations. This is not a job for Boy Scouts.

Iraqi politicians are well aware that the United States is in the midst of a national debate on our military presence in their country. There really is no question that the majority of current Iraqi leaders want to work the American "occupation" to as much of their economic and political advantage as possible. And they want to gain control of that advantage in whatever manner they can.

Taking over the lucrative private contracting of security operations is the first step in that plan. This is a story that hearkens back to the old American West. The Iraqi power brokers want to get the Pinkertons out of Dodge City -- and perhaps the U.S. Marshal, too.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.