The Praetorians of Blackwater

The Iraqi Interior Ministry has just issued an order that may become the most important turning point in relations between the United States and the Maliki government. The Interior Ministry has ordered private Blackwater contractors to leave Iraq.

Why should the presence or absence of private contractors affect relations between nations? The answer lies in what Blackwater does for the United States.

Blackwater is a private security firm based in North Carolina. Founded in 1998 and composed primarily of ex-SEALS, Blackwater has worked in Iraq as the personal guards of Viceroy Paul Bremer and a number of other security details. As Jeremy Scahill has reported, Blackwater has become, in essence, a Praetorian Guard, an army within an army.

Blackwater does many things. In addition to guarding VIP;s, the mercenaries assist in the delivery of supplies into dangerous areas. It was on one of these missions that four Blackwater employees were killed, burned, and hanged from a bridge in Falluja in 2004. Blackwater was also used to defend federal buildings in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Why American troops in Iraq were deemed insufficient for such tasks, as was past procedure, has never been fully explained.

This war has used private mercenaries like no other war before it. There are almost 50,000 private security employees in Iraq, spread among 180 different companies. Blackwater is the largest. During the first Iraq War, the ratio of private contractors to soldiers was 1:60; in the current war, the ratio is 1:3.

Although Blackwater employees do not get health benefits or retirement (they are 1099 independent contractors), they are paid handsomely, between $600 to $1500 per day, seven days a week. At the high end, in other words, they're making SAG union scale. Compare this with the average pay for US Army personnel: $1500-1800 per month, or $50-$60 per day. The work is essentially the same.

Blackwater has its own guns, its own helicopters and Humvees. It is a private army for hire. And it is answerable to no one.

Blackwater employees are immune from either Iraqi or American law in the course of the jobs, per the infamous Order No. 17. They operate in a Kafkaesque legal limbo.

The legal status of operations in Iraq has always been nebulous. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports in one of the most important books to come out of the war, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Americans in Iraq operated in a Helleresque environment, where they could not drink alcohol or smoke indoors or lift boxes without back braces, per strictly enforced OSHA regulations, while mortar shells rained down and fires raged through buildings amid the smoke, chaos, and uncontrolled looting.

If Blackwater stays, and the Interior Ministry's order is nullified by their American masters, then the last shred of independence of the Maliki government will be ripped away. Malaki will then simply be seen as an employee of George Bush, rather than a head of state. If Blackwater leaves, this will radically change the way this war is conducted. This could be the beginning of the end.


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