31 October 2007

Talking sense about Blackwater in Iraq

newsobserver.com | When lawlessness reigns
When lawlessness reigns
STANFORD, CALIF. - Six weeks after the shootings in Baghdad that left 17 people dead, more than a dozen public and private investigations of Blackwater USA have reached a seemingly irrefutable conclusion: Blackwater's forces in Iraq are behaving as brutal outlaws.
A congressional investigation found that Blackwater opened fire far more often than other mercenaries. American soldiers counted shell casings at the scene of the shootings and found none that might have come from attackers. The Iraqi government interviewed witnesses and victims who said Blackwater fired first.
Blackwater, based in Moyock, N.C., denies the allegations. But all of it leaves an indelible image of lawless renegades.
I am not here to defend Blackwater -- or Unity Resources Group, whose guards shot and killed two women driving home from work recently. But none of the investigations, hearings, lawsuits and reports generated in the past weeks has put the contractors' actions in context. The contractors are working in an utterly lawless, anarchic society.
I don't think most Americans appreciate how broken Iraq really is. I've worked in Iraq several times, between 2003 and 2006. During the most recent trip, accompanying Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, our motorcade from the Baghdad airport was held up by an explosive device -- discovered in the road just in time.
Visit Baghdad, and one of the first things you notice is the total lack of even rudimentary traffic rules. Want to make a left turn, but a traffic island makes that impossible? Make a U-turn down the road, and then drive into oncoming traffic for several blocks until you reach your street. No one will raise an eyebrow.
Imagine you are concerned about security in your neighborhood. So you install roadblocks of sand bags, cement bricks and barbed wire, manned by armed mercenaries, at both ends of your block. An unintended result: None of your neighbors can drive home. That happens across Baghdad, and the neighbors have no recourse, no one to complain to.
Maybe those problems seem petty when compared to the larger picture of violence and death. But they do give a flavor of a society out of control.
Blackwater is accused of killing 17 people in a drive-by shooting. Well, drive-by shootings are a daily occurrence. Pick just one day, Oct. 10. Gunmen driving a black Opal Vectra fired upon General Abdulameer Mahmoud, a security official. He and two guards were hospitalized. Gunmen fired on a bus full of Railways Commission employees driving home from work, killing one and injuring five. That same day, gunmen fired on a Kia minibus full of civilians, killing one and injuring six others.
Across Iraq that day, according to a McClatchy Newspapers roundup, eight bodies were found, seven of them unidentified. Four roadside explosive devices detonated, killing two people and injuring six others. Kidnappers seized one government official. A car bomb killed two people and inured 17. A mortar attack on a school for girls injured 11 students and two teachers. Gunmen shot and killed three policemen. And if that day is like most every other, no one will ever be taken to account.
During my first reporting trip to Iraq, in late 2003, my colleagues and I were awakened early one morning by an explosion. Several of us drove to the scene of the bombing. A crowd had already gathered. We got out, and as we walked toward the scene, several people from the crowd looked back at us. One shouted something. The crowd turned and rushed at us, screaming, "kill them!" They began hurling rocks. We scrambled back into our car and took off, but not before a rock had hit our photographer on the head, and others had smashed several windows.
The incident helped force us to reappraise our stance in Iraq. After that, we began to consider every new situation potentially hostile.
A few months later, Iraqis attacked four Blackwater employees driving into Fallujah. A mob shot and burned them, then hung two charred corpses from the struts of a bridge. That helped force a reappraisal of the American stance in Iraq. After that, is it any wonder that Blackwater began to consider every new situation potentially hostile?
Earlier this month, the house passed a bill authored by U.S. Rep. David Price, the North Carolina Democrat, that would hold contractors accountable under American criminal law. A similar bill is before the Senate.
I support that bill. As Americans, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. But before we pillory Blackwater and the other security companies, consider where they work.
(Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former foreign policy correspondent for the New York Times.)

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