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Main stories: Killings spark outrage over contractors in Iraq

The killings of Iraqi civilians by a U.S. security firm spark new tensions between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.

What happened The killings of several Iraqi civilians by a U.S. security firm have sparked new tensions between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki calling the incident a “challenge to the sovereignty of Iraq.” Security guards from the Blackwater firm last week opened fire on civilians in western Baghdad, killing at least 11 Iraqis and wounding 12. Blackwater officials said the guards, who were protecting a U.S. Embassy convoy, were returning insurgent fire. But several witnesses said the shooting was wild and unprovoked. Al-Maliki initially demanded that Blackwater leave Iraq. But after U.S. officials said the removal of Blackwater guards would leave U.S. diplomats unprotected, al-Maliki this week agreed to wait for the results of a joint U.S.-Iraqi inquiry.

The incident focused new attention on the role tens of thousands of private contractors have been playing in Iraq and fueled partisan tensions in Washington. Congress launched its own investigation into Blackwater. But when the State Department ordered the company not to disclose any documents without approval from the Bush administration, some congressional Democrats said they smelled a coverup. The State Department said it merely wants to assure that no classified materials are mistakenly released.

What the editorials said For us Iraqis, this tragedy prompts a simple question, said Bagh­dad’s Al-Sabah. “Why are these security companies still present in Iraq, now that their role is no different from that of the armed militias that kill innocent people in cold blood?” Iraqis have long complained about the horrors committed by these hired guns. Now that we have “a legitimate elected national government,” we expect these thugs to be expelled forthwith.

That’s a lot easier said than done, said the Winston-Salem, N.C., Journal. The U.S. is in a bind. “The private security firms are needed in Iraq because the American military designed a mission with insufficient forces.” But these contractors operate in a sort of legal twilight zone—immune from Iraqi law, but not held accountable under American military law either. It’s untenable, and the worst part is that American GIs often pay the price “for the ill will” created by the “mercenaries.”

What the columnists said The Blackwater affair may be tragic, said David DeVoss in the Los Angeles Times, but it’s not surprising. The North Carolina–based company, staffed with ex–Navy Seals and Army Rangers, is “known for its swaggering image and ‘Dirty Harry’ demeanor.” Blackwater guards like to dangle out of helicopters or perch precariously on Humvee running boards, bristling with knives and ammo belts and brandishing assault rifles. The guards have one goal: to keep their civilian charges alive. “Innocent Iraqis who get in their way do so at their peril.”

But that is not the way Americans are supposed to conduct war, said Ralph Peters in the New York Post. Before Iraq, our diplomats were always protected by soldiers and Marines, not by a bunch of “thugs, vultures, and cons.” Guess what? “When we turn loose armed-to-the-teeth psychos who can’t be prosecuted, we get into trouble.” On this issue, there should be no distance between the U.S. and Iraqi positions. Blackwater should be booted out of Iraq.

If only that would solve the problem, said Capt. Timothy K. Hsia in the Los Angeles Times. Of the more than 20,000 private guards in Iraq, only about 1,000 are Blackwater employees. And security guards make up just a fraction of the contractors supporting the U.S. military—by some estimates, there are more contractors than soldiers. Civilians, many of them neither American nor Iraqi, are responsible for all the support duties traditionally done by soldiers or National Guardsmen. This “cloaked” civilian role means that the number of troops deployed can be kept to a minimum. But the American people are being “fooled” about “the actual numbers required to carry out a war.”

What next? Iraq is drafting legislation that would give the government the authority to prosecute civilian contractors for murder. “The companies will come under the grip of Iraqi law, will be monitored by the Interior Ministry, and will work under its guidelines,” said Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf. “They will be strictly punished for any crimes.” The U.S. had no immediate comment.

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