Contractors in Iraq could face charges in earlier incidents

By Nancy A. Youssef | WASHINGTON – Private security contractors operating in Iraq could face Iraqi prosecution for acts committed when they supposedly had immunity from Iraqi law, U.S. officials said Thursday.

A new U.S.-Iraq security agreement doesn’t specifically prevent Iraqi officials from bringing criminal charges retroactively in cases such as the September 2007 shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians by contractors protecting a State Department convoy, officials told security company officials during meetings in Washington Thursday.

The news caught company officials by surprise.

“We are still trying to make sense of it,” said Anne E. Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Blackwater Inc., whose security guards have been involved in some of the most controversial incidents in Iraq, including the Sept. 16, 2007, shooting at al Nisoor Square in Baghdad.

An order signed in 2003 by L. Paul Bremer, then head of the Coalition Provisional Authority that governed Iraq, granted private security guards immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. In the ensuing years, private security contractors became critical to U.S. operations in Iraq, guarding State Department convoys and undertaking other critical military missions.

Contractors were often involved in controversial incidents, including the killing of a bodyguard to Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdel Mahdi.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki insisted that they be accountable to Iraqi law under the new security deal.

But the question of whether Iraqis could use the agreement to prosecute contractors for previous incidents wasn’t addressed in the new agreement. When security company officials asked Thursday, “We told them that’s a question we don’t know the answer to,” said a State Department official, who spoke to reporters about the meetings under the condition of anonymity.

A Defense Department official who also participated in the briefing under the condition of anonymity added that many contractors are taking a “wait-and-see attitude.”

The State Department official said he couldn’t comment on whether the matter had been raised in discussions with the Iraqis, but said the U.S. will bring the contractors’ concerns to them.

He also said U.S. officials didn’t know how the agreement would affect the ability of American civilian officials to move around Iraq. State Department employees currently are protected almost exclusively by private security guards as they travel away from the U.S. Embassy. However, the agreement addresses only security contractors working with U.S. military forces.

We are in “diplomatic engagement with the Iraqis” on the matter, the State Department official said.

The failure of the agreement to clarify issues about security contractors comes as some military officials have questioned whether the agreement doesn’t give Iraq more control of U.S. military activities than U.S. officials had contemplated when they began negotiating the agreement last spring.

U.S. officials have told McClatchy that the Bush administration was eager to complete the deal before it leaves office in January and acquiesced to many Iraqi demands, including deleting sections that would have allowed the Americans to delay their departure if security conditions deteriorated. Currently, the agreement requires all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

The U.S. hasn’t released an English-language version of the agreement, but the Arabic version distributed by the Iraqis calls the accord a “withdrawal agreement.”

As part of the accord, which U.S. and Iraqi officials signed in Baghdad on Monday, effective Jan. 1, the U.S. cannot conduct missions without approval from the Iraqi government. Iraq also will assume control of the U.S.-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and of the nation’s airspace on Jan. 1.

Representatives of 172 contracting companies were invited to Thursday’s briefings on the agreement. The companies provide a wide array of services, such as security and laundry, and their 173,000 employees outnumber the 150,000 U.S. military personnel now in Iraq.