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Contractors Could Leave Iraq in Wake of Immunity Change Print

By Spencer Ackerman - October 24, 2007

The private security industry is trying to make sense of the announcement today from Baghdad that the Iraqi government is revoking a CPA-era edict, known as Order 17, immunizing contractors from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Some believe that the State Department will succeed in an anticipated attempt to prevent Americans from appearing before an Iraqi judge, while warning that if a full revocation succeeds, American companies or individual contractors might simply up and leave Iraq rather than potentially face charges in an immature justice system.

Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association -- otherwise known as the private-security lobby -- took a cautious approach, saying he wanted to reserve judgment until the State Department and the Pentagon made its views known. But he pointed out that most contractors -- not just security contractors, but contractors involved in reconstruction, as well -- hire Iraqis to do significant amounts of grunt work, which westerners supervise. "If you say anyone not Iraqi is now under Iraqi law -- such as it is -- you'll lose a lot of oversight and management capabilities," Brooks says. That's because he expects his member organizations on the ground in Iraq to either shed their American staff or experience difficulty recruiting Americans to go to Iraq in the future. "It would be enormously risky to stay. Individual contractors would have to take a hard look" at remaining in Iraq.

That's how private-security expert P.W. Singer sees it as well. Two models for Iraq security contracting exist: what Singer calls the ArmorGroup model, where Americans supervise Iraqis and so-called "third country nationals," who are neither Iraqi nor American; and the Blackwater model, where nearly all aspects of the job are filled by Americans. (Blackwater's workforce in Iraq is 80 percent American, according to the company.) "One corporate response could be a shift more and more towards model one," Singer says.

The companies themselves aren't discussing their next moves. DynCorp spokesman Greg Lagana says, simply, "We're perfectly fine with being held accountable under U.S. law." The Iraqi justice system is hardly a model of competence and fairness: Singer says that some contractors "might add the word 'kangaroo' in front of it."

Similarly, Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell declines to comment on "hypotheticals." But Blackwater doesn't have control over whether its security guards are Americans, Iraqis or so-called Third Country Nationals: that's something State builds into the terms of Blackwater's contract, Tyrrell says. "On our end, nothing would change," she says, "but if this were to affect policy -- and you've heard Erik Prince say we're not policy people -- then of course things would change."

What will change, however, isn't something the State Department is commenting on. "We'll continue to work through this issue with the Iraqis, to clarify the legal authority to govern this issue," says spokesman Edgar Vasquez. Vasquez would not elaborate on whether the State Department would accept Iraqi prosecutions of U.S. contractors in Iraq, or what legal framework State would accept.

Singer points out that the Iraqi annulment of Order 17 shows, ironically, the Iraqi government doing what the State Department, in the abstract, would like: that is, accepting more and more responsibility for governance. "The more they do to try and act like a sovereign state, the harder it becomes for us to operate inside Iraq," he notes. "The odd development is that the way we want to get out of Iraq is to leave a functioning state behind, but the last stages of that are really functionally challenging."

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