- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Private security contractors in Iraq say most expatriate companies in the country operate without licenses because corrupt government officials who issue them demand bribes of up to $1 million.

“A couple of companies tried to get licenses, but no one has licenses because the bribes they were asking were too big, up to $1 million,” said a member of the elite Blackwater USA security company, which has been ordered by Iraqi authorities to halt its operations.

As a result, contractors say a number of private security companies end up operating in Iraq without proper licenses.

Iraq’s government said in Baghdad yesterday that it would review the status of all foreign security companies, reacting to public anger over the purported killings of civilians by Blackwater, one of three companies that protect State Department personnel in Iraq.

Exploiting that anger, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded the government ban all 48,000 foreign security contractors, whom Iraqis have long viewed as mercenaries, the Associated Press reported.
VIDEO: Blackwater draws public ire in Iraq

“Part of this is a chance to get back at the Americans,” one U.S. special operations contractor told The Washington Times. “This was hand-delivered to them. [Blackwater] is one of the most powerful and well-equipped security forces.”

The United States yesterday suspended all land travel by U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials throughout Iraq, except in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

In a notice sent to Americans in Iraq, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said it had taken the step to review the security of its personnel and possible increased threats to those leaving the Green Zone while accompanied by such security details.

The incident, which left eight Iraqi civilians dead by most accounts, occurred Sunday when Blackwater was escorting a convoy through one of Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods.

According to the North Carolina-based company, the convoy was attacked by armed insurgents using small-arms fire. The U.S. contractors returned fire to get their clients out of the area safely.

“By doctrine, you return fire — that’s how you stay alive,” said the Blackwater contractor, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “They killed who they needed to kill to get out of there. The teams that try to be all nicey-nicey, guess what? Their guys get kidnapped,” he said.

Several expatriate security contractors who did not open fire have been taken hostage while protecting their clients in western Iraq near Ramadi and in Baghdad.

Yesterday, the Iraqi government appeared to back down from statements Monday that it had revoked Blackwater’s license and would order its 1,000 personnel to leave the country, Associated Press said. It is not clear whether Blackwater was operating under an active license.

The special operations contractor, who has been in Iraq for four years, said he had seen the Ministry of Interior (MOI) demand bribes of security companies in three different contracts.

“You would apply for a license and it would stall, then someone from the MOI would show up and say that the license application was sitting in a box and that for a certain fee it could be pushed through,” said the contractor, also asking that his name not be used.

The size of the bribe depended on the size of the company, he said, starting in the area of $100,000 and up.

Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, which has been found to run secret detention centers, has a reputation for being corrupt. It is also closely linked to Sheik al-Sadr, who is known for his opposition toward U.S. forces.

“Let’s be honest, do you think anyone in the MOI cares about the rank and file Iraqis, or their human rights? I think the answer would be ‘no.’ The onus is how fast they can feather their nest,” said the special operations contractor.

The Blackwater contractor said he felt that the scandal would blow over, given the key role that his company and other security companies play in Iraq. The United States spends tens of millions of dollars a year in private security in Iraq, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

“They will hem and haw, then money will exchange hands and it will go away,” the contractor predicted.

Private contractors, who are used in many areas of security in Iraq, from protecting convoys to State Department personnel, also cautioned that the furor over the Blackwater case had to be looked at carefully in a war situation where kill-or-be-killed rules apply.

“Anyone working in a high-risk capacity, as [private security companies] do, would not hesitate to pull the trigger, if necessary and justified. Hesitation will get them killed, and hesitation will endanger those whom they protect,” said Jeffrey Denning, a commissioned officer in the Army Reserve currently in western Iraq.

Mr. McCormack at the State Department said both U.S. and Iraqi authorities would investigate the incident, but the laws governing security company operations in Iraq were not very clear.

“The lawyers will take a look at all of those things in making a determination about whether or not there were any laws or regulations that were broken,” he told reporters yesterday.

“To boil it down very simply, there are a lot of cross-cutting, jurisdictional as well as legal authorities here, and you would have to have a precise set of facts in order to be able to determine the various applicable legal authorities and whether or not there was any — if there were any laws that were broken,” he said.

Mr. Denning, who is also the co-owner of Liberty Protective Solutions, a consulting and training company specializing in security policy and procedure, said the outcry over the shooting could lead to greater accountability and more training.

Meanwhile,13 persons were killed in bomb attacks in Baghdad, including seven who died when a car bomb and a mortar targeted a morgue filled with people searching for missing relatives, security officials said.

The US military said insurgents killed three American soldiers and wounded another three when they triggered an explosion in Iraq’s Diyala province northeast of Baghdad yesterday.

Insurgents also sabotaged a crude oil pipeline near the northern refinery town of Baiji, spilling huge quantities of oil into the Tigris River, a security official said.

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