A US convoy moving through Baghdad thinks it’s being attacked. The convoy’s guards respond, and a firefight ensues. Innocent bystanders are among the dead. There are conflicting accounts of what happened, and an investigation is underway. Sadly, this kind of thing happens all too often in Iraq, and it happened again last Sunday.
Not surprisingly there’s an outcry over this latest incident. And the outcry would have been loud enough if the Americans doing the shooting had been soldiers or marines, but the incident has taken on an added dimension of controversy because the escorts were contractors working for private security firm Blackwater.
The use of private security contractors perfectly fits the Left’s narrative of a war fought for profits, and enables them to deploy one of their favourite terms of abuse: mercenary (it doesn’t help that the first syllable of the name of the company involved also happens to be the colour of oil). And it's not just Iraqis who should be afraid – here's Joseph A. Palermo fretting at the Huffington Post:
What are the trained squads of right-wing mercenaries from Blackwater, Triple Canopy, and Dyncorp going to do when they come home from Iraq? They will probably fulfill a role similar to the one played by the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The Pinkertons specialized in breaking strikes and repressing labor union organizing, as well as intimidating progressives in general with violence.
Palermo may be paranoid, but of course that doesn't mean they're not out to get him. And the hatred which the Left harbours for Blackwater, and companies like it, is further illustrated by the fact that the New York Times (albeit in coverage slightly more grounded in reality) has taken to calling Blackwater’s employees ‘gunmen’, lumping them together with the Mahdi Army and al-Qaeda insurgents. Clearly the Times is taking the line that one man’s terrorist is another man’s security contractor.
Despite trumpeting the headline ‘Iraqi Report Says Blackwater Guards Fired First’, the Times is as unclear as everyone else about what happened on Sunday. (Note how the only reports coming out of Iraq that the Times doesn’t view with suspicion are those that portray Americans in a bad light; clearly one benchmark it thinks the Iraqi government has met is the ability to divine precisely what happened in a firefight from confused and conflicting accounts).
If you read the story you’ll discover that the convoy’s escorts had every reason to believe they were being ambushed. An Iraqi soldier who witnessed the incident said a car approaching an intersection that the convoy was about to cross ignored a policeman’s order to stop, and was on the wrong side of the road. Suicide car bombs are a fact of life in Iraq; the Blackwater men had to make a split-second decision, and they fired on the car. Witnesses said the escorts then threw non-lethal ‘sound bombs’ to keep people away from the scene. This apparently drew fire from Iraqi Army soldiers and police officers, and we know the rest.
In other words, according to the Times’ own account, after – rightly or wrongly – stopping the car, the Blackwater team had apparently contained the incident until they were fired on by Iraqi forces. It could be that the Iraqis thought the Blackwater guards were insurgents. However, you would think security forces in Baghdad would recognise an American convoy by now, and it’s no secret that some elements of the Iraqi army and police have been infiltrated by militias; but in this instance we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
So the incident appears to have escalated through a series of tragic mistakes. A number of different investigations are taking place, and that might have been the end of the matter for the time being. But Prime Minister Malaki chose to loudly condemn the actions of the contractors, and threatened to throw Blackwater out of the country (this now looks unlikely to happen), possibly by way of trying to shore-up his own fragile support. And of course the media piled in.
The Washington Post reported that an employee (un-named, so quite possibly an Iraqi ‘stringer’, and therefore not necessarily impartial) “witnessed security company helicopters firing into the streets”, the implication clearly being that the firing was indiscrimate. Blackwater denies its men fired from helicopters, but if they did then it could reasonably be argued that if someone’s firing at you, or your colleagues, from the street below, then the street would seem to be a sensible place to direct your return fire if you’d identified a target.
The Times, meanwhile, has been working the Green Zone trying to get someone to say something bad about Blackwater. The best it can come up with is this:
But among the rank and file of security contractors, Blackwater guards are regularly ridiculed as cowboys who are relentlessly and pointlessly aggressive, carry excessive weaponry and do not appear to have top-of-the-line training.
Blackwater’s contractors are drawn from the ranks of ex-military and law-enforcement professionals; many of them are ex-special forces. They may very well be overly aggressive, but they’re hardly cowboys. As the ‘myths v reality’ section on the company’s website notes, while 30 of its contractors have been killed, no one who Blackwater has protected has ever been killed or seriously injured. You’ll find a first-hand account of the lengths Blackwater goes to in ensuring the safety of its charges here. As Hillary Clinton would say, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief to imagine that the US State Department would entrust the lives of its personnel to ‘cowboys’.
As for the line about contractors not having ‘top-of-the-line training', it's somewhat undermined by this extract from the Times’ own background piece on Blackwater:
At its complex in North Carolina, it has shooting ranges for high-powered weapons, buildings for simulating hostage rescue missions and a bunkhouse for trainees.
The Blackwater installation is so modern and well-equipped that Navy Seals stationed at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Norfolk, Va., routinely use it, military officials said. So do police units from around the country, who come to Blackwater for specialized training.
Perhaps Blackwater doesn't train its own people at its own training facility; perhaps they outsource the training to Disney.
Assuming that they were, in fact, properly trained, there's no reason to believe that the Blackwater guards acted any differently than regular troops would have in a similar situation. It may also be the case that some of those killed were not innocent bystanders (as The White Rabbit notes: 'You know how long it takes a dead insurgent to become a dead civilian? About as long as it takes a bystander to pick-up an unattended AK-47 for a quick $200.' It’s also unclear whether any of those killed were hit by fire from the Iraqi soldiers and police.
But the anti-war crowd would have you believe that the response of the Blackwater guards was in some way dictated by the fact that they worked for a private outfit. As if, even while the bullets were flying, the contractors had one eye on the company share price, or were pondering the implications of their next move on some proposed leveraged buy-out. And doubtless the operation would have been overseen by sinister executives in a flying command post with real-time links to Wall Street, London and Frankfurt, who were then whisked back to base to render the whole bloody, chaotic mess as a slick PowerPoint presentation.
What happened in Baghdad on Sunday was tragic. If the Blackwater contractors committed a crime then they must be held accountable, and it’s certainly unsatisfactory that contractors appear to fall into some grey area between criminal and military law. But private security firms in Iraq perform a vital role in Iraq by freeing-up hard-pressed US forces to concentrate on offensive operations, and by and large they do their job well.
The very mention of private security companies elicits a violent emotional response on the Left, causing any remaining pretence of objectivity to be abandoned. However the storm will abate, and cooler heads will make the important decisions about the continuing role of contractors in Iraq.
Update: Had a day off yesterday, and things were pretty quiet when I last checked, so had a shock this afteroon to find that Instapundit and Small Dead Animals had linked, followed by Pajamas just now. Thanks guys.