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Security crews ponder future in Iraq

Private contractors say that losing legal immunity wouldn't drive them from their high-paying jobs.

December 02, 2007|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The security contractor settled into the back of the armored Mercedes parked under the crossed-swords monument, and contemplated the question: If the Iraqi government follows through with its plan to withdraw legal immunity for private guards operating in the country, would he continue to work here?

"I can tell you there's a lot of guys that are worried about it," said the burly former policeman, now in his fourth year in Iraq. He works for an American company that guards high-level U.S. military officials on daily missions around Baghdad. But, he added, "I get paid a hell of a lot of money to be here. I'm in their country, and I need to respect that.

"It's not going to make a difference in how I operate, and it's absolutely not going to cause me to leave," he said.

So it goes for the legions of armed guards that make up the private security forces in Iraq. In the wake of a number of recent shootings, most notably the Sept. 16 incident involving the security firm Blackwater USA that left 17 Iraqis dead and 24 wounded, public rage has boiled over and the government has aggressively been pursuing new efforts to bring private guards under control. Chief among them is to withdraw the immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts that had been bestowed on the contractors by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority that helped set up the new Iraqi government after Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Cabinet has approved the immunity rescission, and it awaits adoption by the parliament. But on Nov. 19, the Iraqi government signaled the seriousness of the intent to move forward with the new oversight, arresting 43 people involved with a security convoy that shot and wounded a pedestrian as she crossed a street in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karada.

In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, an executive and four guards from four companies in the secretive world of security contracting agreed to share their thoughts about the impending crackdown on the grounds that neither they nor their firms' identities would be disclosed.

Generally, there was a sense of resignation among the guards about the immunity repeal and a reluctant acknowledgment that it is probably necessary, because the legal protection appeared to have given some a sense of impunity -- or, at a minimum, a willingness to cut corners when it came to following rules of engagement or escalation of force. None said they believed they would receive a fair trial in an Iraqi court, but none said they would quit the business and leave the country, either.

"From an individual point of view, I don't think there will be a great reaction, because a lot of operators live for the day or the week, and as long as the money's there, there will always be people willing to work in this environment," said another contractor, who works for a British firm. Losing immunity "does make people think twice, but when you bear in mind the personal risk people take in working here, it's probably low down on their list of priorities," he said.

Among some, there was also frustration -- with the high-profile American security firms, particularly Blackwater, whom they accuse of an over-aggressive attitude that creates more problems than necessary -- and with Iraqis who they say continue to approach convoys rapidly and provoke guards to fire despite more than four years of warnings. Some said the U.S. government had not done enough to strike a balance that would hold contractors accountable for unjustified shootings while also ensuring complaints would be heard fairly. And one said the debate over security firm conduct was a luxury afforded by the newfound stability in the country, and one that wasn't even contemplated when hundreds of Iraqis died on a daily basis.

Though the guards expressed a willingness to continue working despite the new legal risk, the executive -- who works for an American firm under contract with the U.S. government -- said the company would have to reexamine whether it would remain in Iraq if immunity for its guards was withdrawn. In two cases, the firm's guards fired on, and disabled, vehicles that turned out to be car bombs driven by suicide attackers. But the company also has been accused of killing drivers who were found to pose no risk.

"We have to seriously think about whether we could do business in Iraq under those conditions," the executive said. "I think under normal conditions no company would have a problem with its employees being accountable to local law. But the reason we're in Iraq is because normal conditions don't exist."

One contractor said the U.S. might have to hire private guards and make them government employees so they would continue to receive diplomatic immunity. Some companies are said to be considering installing video cameras on convoy vehicles to support their contentions that incidents involving the use of force occur in response to threats.

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