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Blackwater down

The U.S. needs to avoid the perception of 'victor's justice' as it investigates the security contractor.

September 19, 2007

By the tragic killing of eight Iraqis during a shootout around a U.S. Embassy convoy, Blackwater USA, the private contractor that protects U.S. diplomats in Iraq, has created a huge legal, diplomatic and political mess. It was, however, a predictable mess. The Iraqis have grown more and more frustrated by what they see as the impunity with which private contractors have harmed civilians. And the Americans have done too little to regulate and control the contractors, who likely now outnumber U.S. troops in Iraq.

The accusation that the Blackwater security guards mistakenly opened fire on Iraqi civilians is devastating. But no matter what misdeeds Blackwater personnel may have committed in the past, the guards must be considered innocent unless proved guilty in a court of law. According to the State Department, the contractors operate under the same rules of engagement as the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security personnel. These rules are more defensive and circumscribed than those that govern U.S. military operations in Iraq, but they still permit the use of deadly force. It is possible that the Blackwater personnel erred, yet still acted legally within rules of engagement that are in need of an overhaul.

Either way, the United States had best do everything possible to avoid the appearance of "victor's justice," lest it further embitter an Iraqi population already chafing under a heavy foreign military presence. As of Tuesday, the Americans and the Iraqis were conducting separate investigations, a first giant step in the wrong direction toward sorting out this tragedy. If the two investigations produce two different sets of facts, justice will undoubtedly fall to politics, leaving both the U.S. and the Iraqi public dubious about the fairness of the outcome. A joint U.S.-Iraq investigation would test a strained relationship, given that official U.S. reports have concluded that much of the Iraqi police force is corrupt, sectarian or incompetent. But it would be far better than competing inquiries.

Iraqis also resent one of the legacies of the U.S. occupation -- Order No. 17, which was signed in 2003 by Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer III and exempts U.S. security contractors from prosecution in Iraq. That order can be superseded at any time by legislation passed by the Iraqi parliament. Washington would be wise to tell Baghdad that it would accept such legislation, and it should make equally clear that if a joint investigation concluded that Blackwater guards violated Iraqi law, it would permit them to go on trial in Iraq.

Meanwhile, we needn't wait for the results of the investigations to know that the massive, poorly regulated, poorly controlled and even downright secretive outsourcing of key military and security jobs to private contractors has gone too far. Congress is overdue for some oversight, and should seize this moment to demand it.

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