- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shootout in Iraq

I was halfway through editing the Associated Press roundup of the day’s events in Iraq last Sunday when a two-paragraph passage jumped out at me.

Somewhere after an account of insurgent raids on Shi’ite villages north of Baghdad and a bicycle bomb in northern Iraq, the story had this:

“Police said yesterday’s violence included the deaths of nine civilians killed by security contractors who opened fire in the heart of Baghdad.

“The U.S. Embassy said contractors working for the State Department were involved in an incident in Baghdad but provided no further details, saying an investigation is under way.”

This had the smell of a bigger story. The use of private security contractors in Iraq has always been controversial, and a shootout involving State Department escorts was bound to draw interest.

But there were no more details on any wire service and our Iraq reporter, Sharon Behn, was on her way home. There was nothing to do but carry the story as written.

It was frustrating, therefore, to see on Monday morning that our main competitor, The Washington Post — which had a reporter present at the shooting — had considerably more information.

The incident was described in seven paragraphs at the top of its roundup. While not naming the security company involved, the Post said the contractors had been guarding a State Department motorcade when a roadside bomb exploded and Iraqi officials were threatening to “punish” them for firing at innocent civilians.

By midmorning, the Iraqi government announced it was lifting the operating license of the company, by now identified as Blackwater USA, and the wire agencies were all over the story, which appeared to be headed for Page 1.

State in a bind

We were behind on the story, but looking for a way to get back in front — no easy task with Mrs. Behn still in transit from the Middle East.

We could have just run the AP account, which was now flush with details, but we wanted to offer something that hadn’t been all over the Internet for 24 hours by Tuesday morning. So we asked State Department reporter Nicholas Kralev to examine the broader implications for U.S. policy in Iraq.

It seemed that the Iraqi action, which by midafternoon included a demand for Blackwater employees to leave the country, placed the Bush administration in a bind.

If it went along with the order, U.S. Embassy staff in Baghdad would be virtual prisoners in the Green Zone, unable to move about the city and country.

But if they ignored the order and allowed Blackwater to continue escorting their convoys, they would undermine the authority of the Iraqi government they are working so hard to stabilize.

We made that the angle of our story for Tuesday’s paper and were pleased when the AP, late in the day, introduced a similar element in the second paragraph of its story. Better still, the Post on Tuesday carried a straight account from Baghdad of the Iraqi government’s actions, meaning we had given our readers something unique.

Tuesday morning, a jet-lagged Mrs. Behn arrived at the office and immediately went to work calling her contacts within the community of security contractors in Iraq.

Neither Blackwater nor many of the other contractors even had current licenses to operate, she learned. The reason: Corrupt Iraqi officials were demanding bribes of up to $1 million to issue them.

With that we were able to really put our mark on a story that had threatened to get away from us.

c David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washington times.com.

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