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For private firms, rules of engagement vary

Security guards, some accused of firing at American troops and Iraqi forces and civilians, are not bound by the U.S. military code of justice.

Published August 12, 2007


There are nearly as many private contractors in Iraq as there are U.S. soldiers - and many of them are private security guards equipped with automatic weapons, body armor, helicopters and bulletproof trucks.

They operate with little or no supervision, accountable only to the firms employing them. As the country has plummeted toward anarchy and civil war, this private army has been accused of indiscriminately firing at American and Iraqi troops, and of shooting to death an unknown number of Iraqi citizens who got too close to their heavily armed convoys.

None has faced charges or prosecution.

Defense officials estimate that 125,000 contractors are working in the country. The figures on those who carry guns vary widely, depending on the source, from about 20,000 to as many as nearly 50,000.

There is great confusion among legal experts and military officials about what laws - if any - apply to Americans working in this force.

They operate in a decidedly gray legal area. Unlike soldiers, they are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Under a special provision secured by American-occupying forces, they are exempt from prosecution by Iraqis for crimes committed there.

The security firms insist their employees are governed by internal conduct rules and by use-of-force protocols established by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. occupation government that ruled Iraq for 14 months following the invasion.

But many soldiers on the ground - who earn in a year what private guards can earn in just one month - say their private counterparts should answer to a higher authority, just as they do. More than 60 U.S. soldiers in Iraq have been court-martialed on murder-related charges involving Iraqi citizens.

Some military analysts and government officials say the contractors could be tried under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which covers crimes committed abroad. But so far, that law has not been applied to them.

Security firms earn more than $4-billion in government contracts, but the government doesn't know how many private soldiers it has hired, or where all of them are, according to the Government Accountability Office. The companies are not required to report violent incidents involving their employees.

Security guards now constitute nearly 50 percent of all private contractors in Iraq - a number that has skyrocketed since the 2003 invasion, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said rebuilding Iraq was the top priority. But an unforeseen insurgency and hundreds of terrorist attacks have pushed the country into chaos. Security is now Iraq's greatest need.

The wartime numbers of private guards are unprecedented - as are their duties, many of which have traditionally been done by soldiers. They protect U.S. military operations and have guarded high-ranking officials including Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Baghdad. They also protect visiting foreign officials and thousands of construction projects.

At times, they are better equipped than military units.

Their presence has also pushed the war's direction. The 2004 battle of Fallujah - an unsuccessful military assault in which an estimated 27 U.S. Marines were killed, along with an unknown number of civilians - was retaliation for the killing, maiming and burning of four Blackwater guards in that city by a mob.

"I understand this is war," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., whose efforts for greater contractor accountability led to an amendment in next year's Pentagon spending bill. "But that's absolutely no excuse for letting this very large force of armed private employees, dare I say mercenaries, run around without any accountability to anyone."

* * *

Blackwater has an estimated 1,000 employees in Iraq, and at least $800-million in government contracts. It is one of the most high-profile security firms in Iraq, with its fleet of "Little Bird" helicopters and armed door gunners swarming Baghdad and beyond.

The secretive company, run by a former Navy SEAL, is based at a massive, swampland complex in North Carolina. Until 9-11, it had few security contracts.

Since then, Blackwater profits have soared. And it has become the focus of numerous contractor controversies in Iraq, including the May 30 shooting death of an Iraqi deemed to be driving too close to a Blackwater security detail.

Company spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell, in an e-mail to the Associated Press, said the shooting was justified. "Based on incident reports and witness accounts, the Blackwater professional acted lawfully and appropriately," she wrote. There was no response to AP inquiries seeking further details.

Other alleged shootings involving private contractors include:

- An incident in which a supervisor for a Virginia-based security company said he was "going to kill somebody today" and then shot at Iraqi civilians for amusement, possibly killing one, according to two employees. The two, former Army Ranger Charles L. Sheppard III and former Marine Corps sniper Shane B. Schmidt, were fired by the company, Triple Canopy, and responded with a wrongful termination lawsuit. On its Internet site, the company said all three were fired for failing to immediately report incidents involving gunfire. On Aug. 1, a Fairfax County, Va., jury ruled that Triple Canopy did not wrongly fire the two men. Jury forewoman Lea Overby said the judge's jury instructions left no choice but ruling against the former employees. "But we do not agree with the Triple Canopy's treatment" of them, she wrote.

- Disgruntled employees of London-based Aegis Defence Services, holder of one of the biggest U.S. security contracts in Iraq - valued at more than $430-million - posted videos on the Internet in 2005 showing company guards firing automatic weapons at civilians from the back of a moving security vehicle. After initially denying involvement, Aegis, run by former Scots Guard Lt. Col. Tim Spicer, issued a statement saying the shootings were legal and within rules-of-force protocols established by the now-defunct CPA. Those guidelines allow security guards to fire on vehicles that approach too close or too quickly. U.S. Army auditors, in their own investigation, agreed with Aegis.

In the chaos of Iraq, where car bombings and suicide attacks occur over and over on any given day, such contractor shootings are commonplace, military officials say. The numbers of Iraqis wounded or killed by private guards is not known.

- Sixteen American security guards were arrested and jailed by U.S. Marines in battle-scarred Fallujah in 2005 following a day of shooting incidents in which they allegedly fired on a Marine observation post, a combat patrol and civilians walking and driving in the city. The guards, employed by Zapata Engineering of North Carolina, were imprisoned for three days and released to the U.S. The private guards denied taking part in the shootings. Last year, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service closed its criminal investigation of the case "for lack of prosecutive merit," a spokesman said.

* * *

Since U.S. contractors first swarmed into Iraq, animosity has run high between soldiers and private security guards. Many of the latter are highly trained ex-members of elite military groups including Navy SEALS, Green Berets and Army Rangers.

"Most military guys resent them," said former Marine Lt. Col. Mike Zacchea, who spent two years in Iraq training and building the Iraqi army. "There's an attitude that if these guys really wanted to do the right thing, they would have stayed in the military."

Zacchea, now retired in Long Island, N.Y., said that as a senior battalion adviser, he was offered jobs by several security companies, with average salaries of $1,000 a day. He wasn't interested. "I didn't want to go to Iraq as a mercenary. I don't believe in it. I don't think what they're doing is right.

"Really, these guys are free agents on the battlefield. They're not bound by any law. They're non-uniformed combatants. No one keeps track of them."

In late 2004, the Reconstruction Operations Center opened in Baghdad. Its purpose was to track movement of contractors and military troops around the country and to keep records of violent incidents. Participation, however, is voluntary.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

Fast Facts:

125,000 private contractors in Iraq, defense officials estimate

160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq

$18,000 monthly pay some contractors make

$1,300 amount a private at a beginning pay grade makes in a month

[Last modified August 12, 2007, 01:47:25]

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