Legal Loopholes in Iraq
November 5, 2007 – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refers to the lack of legal accountability that allows mercenaries working for the American government to kill Iraqis without fear of prosecution as “a lacuna” in our law.
Ms. Rice is correct, if disingenuous. The gap was created by the very administration she serves — in a decree issued three years ago by its occupation administrator, Paul Bremer, who granted legal immunity to foreign private contractors. And the Iraqi government is understandably in a hurry to correct the mistake. On Tuesday, the cabinet agreed on draft legislation to revoke the decree.
Washington, however, also needs to address the problem. The administration should withdraw all of these private armies from Iraq, and while it does that, Congress must act swiftly to ensure that American justice applies to all those who remain. [VCS agrees.]
Baghdad’s attempt to prosecute United States mercenaries for crimes against Iraqis is not unreasonable. Fuming after Blackwater agents contracted by the State Department mowed down 17 Iraqis in Baghdad on Sept. 16, Iraqis were incensed when they found out that State Department agents investigating the incident offered the guards a form of immunity from prosecution under American law.
Beyond corroborating the State Department’s incompetence, the spectacle of Washington letting its trigger-happy bodyguards off the hook wiped out whatever residual sense of legitimacy Iraqis may have still attached to the United States’ mission.
The fallout over Washington’s careless mishandling of the contractors ultimately reinforces the argument for an orderly exit of all American forces, returning to Iraqis the power and responsibility to build their nation.
But Washington also has other lessons to draw. It is folly to outsource the tasks of combat to private contractors with no commitment to the nation’s broader goals in Iraq, undermining the already hard job of gaining Iraqis’ trust. It underscores how farming out these jobs to divert the money to expensive weapons that enrich weapons makers and their lobbyists undercuts America’s armed forces, adding little to American national security or the nation’s ability to fight 21st-century wars.
That folly was compounded by the decision to allow gun-toting mercenaries to run around Iraq without any clear legal tether holding them accountable to Iraqi law, American criminal law or military law.
The killings in Baghdad last September were not the first crimes involving private contractors working for the American government. Still, four years after the start of the war, not one contractor has been prosecuted for crimes committed against an Iraqi.
That is no way for a nation to behave if it prides itself on following the rule of law.