WASHINGTON, D.C.—The four “civilians” killed, burned, and dragged through the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, on Wednesday morning weren’t really civilians. Or were they? They were employees of Blackwater Security Consulting, a rural North Carolina subsidiary of Blackwater USA, one of several dozen firms taking over the duties of the regular American military in Iraq, protecting buildings and grounds as well as officials.
In fact, Blackwater itself is in charge of protecting L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, the U.S. official who now runs Iraq as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. In the coming weeks, hundreds of American civilian workers who really are civilians will be entering Iraq to work on private contracts let by the Bush government. Their security will be provided by guards (like the Blackwater men killed yesterday) from a variety of security firms, often consisting of former U.S. military special ops people.
The use of private military forces raises tricky questions for the U.S. government. The most important one is why is the Bush administration is recruiting civilians to work there when our government can’t possibly guarantee the security of the area. Another question: Why aren’t these jobs in combat zones being carried out by American military forces, instead of mercenaries?
Building up a surrogate military force, along the lines of the French Foreign Legion or the Gurkhas, has been the ambition of conservatives for many years. The thinking is that future wars will be characterized by “low-intensity,” or guerrilla, warfare. If the fighting is done by a force of irregular surrogates, people won’t question their casualties as they would those of regular military personnel. The contras in Nicaragua were an example of what a surrogate fighting force might look like, and special ops types from South Africa’s former apartheid regime have long been involved in fighting in southern Africa.
The latest incident involving one of these relatively new mercenary companies occurred in Haiti. There the Steele Foundation, a private security firm based in California, was protecting the palace when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was summarily rushed to the airport at Port-au-Prince and onto a mysterious plane that took off with no listed destination—raising the inevitable question of their involvement with American intelligence. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Aristide feared that the Steele people would abandon their jobs and leave him to be killed by the rebels. Subsequent press reports noted that an extra detail of Steele people requested by Aristide for added protection were blocked by American officials from leaving California for Haiti.
In Iraq, Blackwater provides security not only for Bremer but also for food shipments in the turbulent Fallujah area.
The private security firms working in Iraq see big salaries as well as plenty of potential danger. Often, they have been seen in military garb but without the insignias that would formally designate them as U.S. military. This situation raises the question of whether or not they can be treated as soldiers under the Geneva conventions—whether they are provided those protections—or whether as irregulars they will get dealt with as spies.
Providing mercenaries is a popular and growing business in part because their use in places like Iraq presumably would release regular military personnel for other work—or allow them to go back to the U.S.
Blackwater USA’s other subsidiaries are Blackwater Training Center, Blackwater Target Systems, Blackwater Canine, and Blackwater Air. The company proclaims: “We have established a global presence and provide training and tactical solutions for the 21st century,” adding, “Our clients include federal law enforcement agencies, the Department of Defense, Department of State, and Department of Transportation, local and state entities from around the country, multinational corporations and friendly nations from all over the globe.”