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Iraq: Blackwater Incident Could Further Undermine Premier

By Sumedha Senanayake

September 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The killing of 11 Iraqis in Al-Nusur Square in western Baghdad on September 16, allegedly by Blackwater USA security contractors has enraged Iraqis for more than a week.

Details of the incident remain unclear, but Iraqi officials and witnesses at the scene contend that the contractors, opened fire on unarmed civilians without provocation. This contradicts claims by the company and U.S. officials that a State Department convoy guarded by Blackwater contractors came under fire, and the contractors reacted in a defensive manner by returning fire.

The incident has touched a nerve and has angered Iraqis on several fronts. Blackwater contractors have long been accused of running roughshod with their aggressive tactics without regard for the well-being of Iraqis. In the aftermath of the Al-Nusur killings, the Iraqi Interior Ministry noted that Blackwater contractors have been linked to six other violent incidents, including the killing of three Iraqi security guards at a television station in Baghdad on February 7.

However, it is the issue of not holding Blackwater and other private security firms accountable for their actions that has truly roiled Iraqis and created the impression that Iraq's sovereignty is being undermined.

Iraqis Feel Sovereignty Challenged

The initial reaction by the Iraqi government after the Al-Nusur Square incident was to revoke Blackwater's license, expel the company from Iraq, and have the contractors involved in the shootings brought to justice in Iraq. However, it seems that none of this may actually occur.

Even as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki described the incident as a "crime" and many Iraqi lawmakers called for Blackwater to suspend all activities, the company continued to operate after a brief hiatus. While officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad indicated that Blackwater was carrying out only vital missions, this underscores the frustration expressed by many Iraqis that they do not have control over what goes on in their own country.

Moreover, according to Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Order No. 17, private contractors "shall be immune from the Iraqi legal process," essentially meaning there is no chance of the contractors allegedly involved in the Al-Nusur incident being prosecuted under Iraqi law. Iraqi officials have indicated that the recent shootings may prompt them to revoke CPA Order 17 and create new guidelines for dealing with foreign contractors.

Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on September 23 that prior to the Al-Nusur incident, Iraqi officials had repeatedly complained to U.S. officials about Blackwater's overly aggressive methods and how they were operating without regulation. Deputy Interior Minister Husayn Kamal said, "Our complaints went nowhere."

Furthermore, the issue of Iraq's sovereignty continues to be raised after the arrest of an Iranian national, Mahmud Farhadi, by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Al-Sulaymaniyah on September 20. The United States accused Farhadi of being an officer of the Al-Quds Force, a secret military wing of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, who was trying to smuggle weapons into Iraq.

However, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani insisted Farhadi was a member of an Iranian trade delegation that was in the region "with the knowledge of the federal government in Baghdad and the government of Kurdistan." Both Talabani and al-Maliki condemned the arrest and demanded Farhadi's immediate release. The arrest prompted Iran to close its border with Iraq's Kurdish region in protest, and Kurdish officials have warned that the local economy would suffer as a result of the United States' unilateral actions.

A Further Blow To Al-Maliki

As the Blackwater incident continues to play out, it remains to be seen how it will impact al-Maliki's political standing. The country is still in the midst of a political crisis, with the major Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, continuing to boycott the government by refusing to allow its ministers to rejoin al-Maliki's cabinet. The absence of Sunni lawmakers has been a blow to al-Maliki's efforts at fostering national reconciliation.

Even within his Shi'ite-dominated coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), al-Maliki is facing defections and withdrawals that threaten his government. On September 15, the political bloc of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, with 32 seats in parliament, withdrew from the UIA, claiming that it was being sidelined from the political process.

Abd al-Karim al-Anzi, the head of the Al-Da'wah Party-Iraq Organization, later announced that his party too might consider pulling out of the UIA if the Shi'ite rift was not healed. This fueled speculation that opponents of al-Maliki were trying to bring a no-confidence vote against him and bring down the government.

There have been also murmurings in the Iraqi media that former Prime Minister and Islamic Al-Da'wah Party member Ibrahim al-Ja'fari was set to announce the formation of a new political coalition, the National Reform Grouping, that would counter the moderates' front established by the UIA and the Kurdish Alliance in mid-August. If it is formed, the new coalition is expected to be the largest in parliament and al-Ja'fari may seek to replace al-Maliki as prime minister.

Is Al-Maliki Powerless To Act?

Based on the current political landscape, those who oppose al-Maliki may use the Blackwater incident to further erode his already tenuous political position. If the joint U.S.-Iraqi commission set up to investigate the Al-Nusur incident finds that some of the Blackwater contractors opened fire without provocation, but are not punished or do not end up standing trial in Iraq, then al-Maliki could be seen as a U.S. puppet and lose any political credibility.

Indeed, al-Maliki's vociferous condemnation of the shootings and calls for those accused to face justice, despite his understanding that CPA Order 17 will make it virtually impossible to do so, is arguably an attempt to assuage public anger and shore up his political standing.

However, the reality of the situation is that nothing substantial may actually change regarding the Blackwater incident. The Iraqi government has already quickly backtracked from suspending the company's activities in Iraq outright, claiming it may actually lead to greater problems in the long run.

Tashin al-Shiekhly, a spokesman for the Iraqi security forces, said at a September 24 news conference that forcing Blackwater to freeze its operations would create a security vacuum in Baghdad that may have to be filled by redeploying U.S. forces from other parts of Iraq. Those redeployments could make less secure areas even more vulnerable, an apparent acknowledgement that the presence of Blackwater needs to be tolerated for the benefit of Iraq's overall security.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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