Calls for Tighter Restrictions on Contractors in Iraq

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Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is the World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Some 35,000 private security contractors are thought to be working in Iraq these days. That number is expected to increase dramatically as U.S. troops withdraw at the end of this year. Many Iraqis are concerned about that. Contractors have been involved in some controversial, even deadly incidents in Iraq, but they also have legal immunity against prosecution for any crimes they may have committed before 2009. Reporter Jane Arraf joins us from Baghdad. So, Jane, a group from the U.N. was just in Baghdad to discuss the role of security contractors there. What were they looking at in particular?

JANE ARRAF: Well, they were really looking at what sort of rules should be implemented and how it's been going so far. It's actually called the U.N. Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries. Now, these people are not mercenaries they point out, they are private security contractors, but their ranks are really going to grow. As the U.S. military leaves, they're going to have to hire more security contractors to protect the Embassy. And, really what this group wanted to do was a bit of a fact-finding mission. It wanted to talk to security contractors, wanted to talk to the Iraqi government, didn't quite get all it wanted on that front. And, basically come up with some recommendations.

WERMAN: Well, interesting that you mentioned this euphemism as security contractor, they're really mercenaries according to the U.N. Does the U.N. see them as mercenaries?

ARRAF: Here in Iraq it's not so much mercenaries, because they are actually contracted employees. But, there are, as you point out, 35,000 of them, including 12,000 foreigners. The U.N. itself is in a bind, because it's going to have to rely on them after U.S. forces pull out. And, as the head of this working group, Jose Luis Gomez del Prado told us earlier today, there is really a gray area there in terms of immunity from prosecution.

JOSE LUIS GOMEZ DEL PRADO: Iraq continues to grapple with the grant of legal immunity extended to private security contractors under Order 17, which it was issued by the Coalition Provisional Authorities. Four years after Nissour Square, the case against the alleged perpetrators is still pending in the United States.

ARRAF: He's talking, of course about that shooting by Blackwater, the American firm in 2007, where they were escorting a State Department convoy, and they opened fire thinking they were under threat, killing 17 civilians.

WERMAN: Have there been many incidents involving security contractors since 2009?

ARRAF: There has been a decreasing number. But again, this is a very different war. We have to remember what it was like then, and really, it was quite extraordinary. If you were out in the streets, you really did take your life in your hands if you drove anywhere near a U.S. military convoy, or even a State Department convoy protected by the companies like Blackwater. They knew they had immunity, and they acted as if they had immunity. And it was absolutely terrifying for most Iraqis. It's not like that anymore. You very rarely see U.S. soldiers in the streets. When the State Department people go out and other Iraqi, sorry, American civilians go out, and they rarely go out, they use much more discrete security, so those incidents have indeed dropped. But what we're looking at as U.S. forces withdraw is the number of contractors rising again and fears that the Iraqi government just won't be able to control them all.

WERMAN: You know, with 35,000 security contractors in Iraq these days, how do, you know, people in Baghdad feel about so many security contractors living amongst them?

ARRAF: Well, to be really direct, they hate them. They really, really, really hate them. They hate them not only because they're a symbol of the occupation and because the U.S. isn't really quite so visible anymore, the focus of a lot of anger has turned to these private security companies. They have been reined in quite a lot, but still, they drive with sirens blazing, they take up the entire road. So, Iraqis really are not very keen on seeing private security companies here.

WERMAN: Reporter Jane Arraf speaking with us from Baghdad. Jane, thanks very much.

ARRAF: Thank you.