BAGHDAD, Iraq – A confrontation between the U.S. military and the State Department is unfolding over the involvement of Blackwater USA in the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad square Sept. 16, bringing to the surface long-simmering tensions between the military and private security companies in Iraq, according to U.S. military and government officials.
In high-level meetings over the past several days, U.S. military officials have pressed State Department officials to assert more control over Blackwater, which operates under the department’s authority, said a U.S. government official with knowledge of the discussions. “The military is very sensitive to its relationship that they’ve built with the Iraqis being altered or even severely degraded by actions such as this event,” the official said.
“This is a nightmare,” said a senior U.S. military official. “We had guys who saw the aftermath and it was very bad. This is going to hurt us badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib, and it comes at a time when we’re trying to have an impact for the long term.” The official was referring to the prison scandal that emerged in 2004 in which some U.S. soldiers tortured and abused Iraqis.
In last week’s incident, Blackwater guards shot into a crush of cars, killing at least 11 Iraqis and wounding 12. Blackwater officials insist their guards were ambushed, but witnesses have described the shooting as unprovoked. Iraq’s Interior Ministry has already concluded that Blackwater was at fault.
In interviews involving a dozen U.S. military and government officials, many expressed anger and concern over the shootings in Nisoor Square, in Baghdad’s Mansour neighborhood. Some worried it could undermine the military’s efforts to stabilize Iraq this year with an offensive involving thousands of reinforcements.
“This is a big mess that I don’t think anyone has their hands around yet,” said another U.S. military official. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing these guys are being held accountable. Iraqis hate them, the troops don’t particularly care for them, and they tend to have a `know-it-all attitude, which means they rarely listen to anyone – even the folks that patrol the ground on a daily basis.”
Most officials spoke on condition of anonymity because there are at least three ongoing investigations of Blackwater’s role in the shootings.
A State Department official asked why the military is shifting the question to State “since the DOD has more Blackwater contractors than we do … .”
According to federal spending data compiled by the independent Web site FedSpending.org, however, the State Department’s Blackwater contracts vastly exceed those of the Pentagon. Since 2004, State has paid Blackwater $833,673,316, compared to Defense Department contracts of $101,219,261.
Scores of private security firms play a vital role in the U.S. military mission, from force protection to securing the perimeters of U.S. bases and guarding generals. They free up more U.S. soldiers for combat duty and to secure neighborhoods.
At the same time, the military has long been wary of private security guards, especially those who, in the military’s view, don’t follow the rules of engagement that govern soldiers. Often, private guards quickly drive away from the scene of an incident, leaving soldiers to clean up the mess, officials said.
“I personally was concerned about any of the civilians running around on the battlefield during my time there,” said retired Army Col. Teddy Spain, who commanded a military police brigade in Baghdad. “My main concern was their lack of accountability when things went wrong.”