- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Iraqi parliament is poised to pass its first significant piece of legislation since the lawmakers went on summer recess — a bill to remove immunity from expatriate security companies working there.

The rare show of solidarity grows out of popular anger over the government’s inability to prosecute employees of Blackwater USA for a Sept. 16 shooting incident that left 17 Iraqis dead.

However, it is not clear whether U.S. security companies would remain in Iraq if the law is passed. Blackwater founder Erik Prince told The Washington Times this month that he would never hand over his employees to an Iraqi judicial system that he described as fatally flawed.

“In an ideal sense, if there is wrongdoing there could be a trial in an Iraqi court system [but] that would imply a functional court system,” Mr. Prince said.

Iraqi lawmakers have for months been unable to make progress on a series of political and economic benchmarks being pushed by the U.S. administration as a way to reconcile Sunnis and Shi’ites and get the country back on its feet.

But frustration over a regulation imposed by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004, which makes foreign security companies immune from Iraqi law, has united the feuding factions.

“I can anticipate that the mood in parliament is that people like those in these security companies must be held accountable and that Iraqi lives must be protected,” Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie told The Washington Times yesterday.

Iraq’s Cabinet approved a draft law earlier in the day that would overturn the CPA rule, one of the final acts of U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer.

“The Cabinet was merely responding to popular sentiments, and also quite properly to put some legal constraints on the behavior of individuals who are highly armed and dangerous,” said the ambassador.

In Washington, the State Department said officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad were studying the proposed legislation and would work with the Iraqis on the draft.

Asked whether the Iraqi parliament had the power to overturn Mr. Bremer’s directive, department spokesman Sean McCormack said the regulation is Iraqi law and can be changed by the legislators.

“We want to take a look at it. We want to examine it,” said Mr. McCormack.

“We do have various mechanisms to deal with these kinds of issues. There is the U.S.-Iraqi Joint Commission specifically on personal security contractors. That’s one forum where we can talk about this and any issues that it may raise for us,” he said.

Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, which counts dozens of security companies among its members, warned that many companies would leave Iraq if the CPA order, known as Order 17, is completely removed.

“I doubt they will completely revoke Order 17. Too much of the reconstruction effort relies on foreign contractors, and [if the law were totally revoked] they would have to leave,” he said.

If the parliament does approve the bill as drafted, it will be its first legislative achievement in months.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has sent the lawmakers proposed legislation on oil and de-Ba’athification, but as yet parliament has refused to consider either one, said Judith Yaphe of the Institute for National Strategic Studies and the National Defense University.

There are also questions about whether the Blackwater employees can be prosecuted under American law, especially after published reports that the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security promised limited immunity from prosecution to those involved in the Sept. 16 shootings.

The chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, wrote yesterday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to ask who conferred immunity on the Blackwater security guards.

“This rash grant of immunity was an egregious misjudgment,” Mr. Waxman wrote in his letter. “It raises serious questions about who conferred the immunity, who approved it at the State Department, and what their motives were.”

Mr. Waxman further asked the State Department to produce no later than Friday all communications relating to any offers of immunity regarding the Sept. 16 incident or any other incident in Iraq.

Administration officials stressed that the guards could still be prosecuted using other evidence gathered in the investigation, which is now being led by the FBI.

“Any suggestion that the Blackwater employees in question have been given immunity from federal criminal prosecution is inaccurate,” Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd was quoted as saying.

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