- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. | When a team of Blackwater Worldwide security contractors opened fire last year in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square, nobody was quite sure whether a crime had been committed, and if so, whether there was a prosecutor with the authority to bring charges.

More than a year after the shooting that left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead - an incident that led Iraqi leaders to demand Blackwater leave the country and forced Chief Executive Officer Erik Prince to defend his company in hearings before Congress - the rules under which security firms operate in Iraq are still muddled.

And a new U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that takes effect Jan. 1 isn’t offering any help on the central question of whether Blackwater’s roughly 1,000 guards working in Iraq are subject to that nation’s courts.

“The immunity question - the largest question being talked about - is not addressed in the … agreement,” said Alan Chvotkin, who works on behalf of contractors, including Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater, as executive vice president and counsel at the Arlington-based Professional Services Council.

“The implication is there is none, but there’s some hedging on that question. As of right now, there’s still some ambiguity. And smart people disagree about it.”

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors in Washington won indictments on manslaughter and other charges against five Blackwater guards involved in the shooting. Their attorneys are expected to challenge the charges, arguing prosecutors used a law that covers soldiers and military contractors but not civilian contractors who work for the State Department.

That distinction also clouds what’s know as the “status of forces agreement,” which governs the U.S. military presence in Iraq and was approved by the Iraqi parliament last month. It describes U.S. contractors as those working for the “Armed Forces,” and does not directly address security guards - including those working for Blackwater - who operate under a contract issued by a civilian agency such as the State Department.

These are critical questions for Blackwater and its future. Blackwater has used the more than $1 billion in government contracts won since the start of the Iraq war to grow from a small company focused on training to a security industry leader with a brand-name that’s known worldwide.

Blackwater is the largest contractor providing security in Iraq and most of its work for the State Department is in protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq, a job the agency is unable to handle on its own.

While Blackwater has announced plans to cut back its security contracting business, it remains committed to its most high-profile mission for as long as it has a paying customer.

“We are following the direction of our U.S. government client,” said Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell, who referred specific questions about the status of forces agreement to the State Department. “We will do as they ask, for as long as they ask.”

Those inside the security industry are nervous about what they describe as the State Department’s reluctance to answer their questions about how to interpret the status of forces agreement, other than to suggest the companies prepare to work in Iraq without immunity from its justice system.

Tara Lee, a partner at the law firm DLA Piper in Reston, who has represented security contractors other than Blackwater, said contractors pressed State Department officials at a recent meeting, asking “Do you plan to get answers and some follow-on guidance to contractors in Iraq before the jurisdiction takes effect on Jan. 1?”

Miss Lee recalled the answer: “No.”

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