Two months ago, in a column about the continuing funding of the Iraq War, I raised the very ugly and controversial issue of the U.S. government employing thousands of paid mercenaries in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This week, what could have been considered a totally predictable event took place. Namely, mercenaries for Blackwater USA cut loose with machine guns on a crowd of Iraqis for some 20 minutes, killing more than 20 civilians (depending on whose numbers you use), wounding 13 more, and garnering an order from Iraq’s government banning any further operations by Blackwater in Iraq and ordering it out of the country.

The incident took place in Baghdad after a car bomb exploded near a convoy of U.S. State Department personnel for which Blackwater was providing security. Dozens of eyewitnesses say machine gun fire rained down from Blackwater’s private
helicopters into a crowd of Iraqis with the predictably lethal outcome.

What comes next, however, is not so clear. The Iraqi government is outraged and its Interior Ministry told CNN reporters, “We have to protect the people. At the same time, we have to show the sovereignty of the government in Iraq.” Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shiite cleric who maintains his own large, private armed force known as the Mahdi Army, has also condemned both the act and the use of mercenaries, saying, “This aggression would not have happened had it not been for the presence of these occupiers who brought these companies.”

To say that Blackwater has kicked open a hornet’s nest would be putting it mildly. If Iraq was truly a sovereign country, as Americans have been led to believe by the Bush administration, the next step would be obvious: Those responsible for the shooting would be subject to Iraq’s legal system and punished under its laws.

But that is not going to happen for a couple of reasons. First, despite the blather from the White House propagandists, it is ludicrous to label a country that is fully occupied by a foreign army—ours—as sovereign. More important, however, is Order 17, issued by the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority set up by the U.S. to run Iraq after the invasion, which clearly states that “Contractors shall be immune from Iraqi legal process with respect to acts performed by them pursuant to the terms and conditions of a Contract or any sub-contract thereto.”

What that means in simplest terms is that America has created a monster in the form of mercenaries—many poached from foreign armies—who have authority to exercise lethal force without fear of prosecution. The Iraqis say this incredible legal shield has led to numerous violent and often-lethal incidents by Blackwater and other mercenary firms employed by the U.S., who exercise their power over Iraqis brutally and aggressively.

Following the incident and the Iraqi blow-back, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quick to get on the phone and promise Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the U.S. will conduct a “fair and transparent investigation” of the shooting and “hold wrongdoers accountable,” according to the AP reports. What’s puzzling is that since many of Blackwater’s contracts with the U.S. government are classified under the rubric of “black ops,” it is highly unlikely that any transparency whatsoever will ensue, either for the Iraqis or the American taxpayers who are picking up the tab for this disaster.

Perhaps even more disturbing in the story by AP reporter Robert Reid is this line: “The U.S. clearly hoped the Iraqis would be satisfied with an investigation, a finding of responsibility and compensation to the victim’s families—and not insist on expelling a company that the Americans cannot operate here without.” For one thing, that sure sounds like a line from an opinion column instead of credible reporting. But worse, it is now apparent that the privatization of war and the subsequent profit motivation brought about under the Bush administration has plunged our nation to a new low—waging wars that we “cannot operate” without the help of mercenaries.

If we cannot operate in Iraq without Blackwater’s services, it is highly unlikely the Iraq government will succeed in its effort to expunge either Blackwater or the other mercenary firms under U.S. employ from their country. But the other question it raises is considerably more significant for the future of this nation: Why are we dependent on mercenaries to wage our wars?

The contracts under which the mercenaries operate pay considerably more than the average daily wage for a member of the U.S. armed forces. Blackwater mercenaries can and often do get $1,000 a day, making in a month or two what the average enlisted soldier can expect to make in a year. And yes, it’s all taxpayer money that, especially under the fiscally irresponsible Bush administration, is increasingly borrowed, to be paid back by future generations.

Such discrepancies in pay also give rise to a host of troubling ancillary questions. Why should a regular U.S. soldier face death, crippling injuries and, ever more frequently, long-term mental problems for a fraction of what our country is willing to pay mercenaries? Is it worth less to risk having your legs blown off because you enlisted in the armed services instead of joining a mercenary firm? And what part do political connections play—and what level of corruption exists—in the awarding of these mercenary contracts?

The Iraqis say they plan to investigate Blackwater and the other mercenary firms operating in their country. But since the U.S. Congress will soon see requests for billions more in war funding, is there any credible reason why we, the American people, shouldn’t also have an open and transparent investigation of the role mercenaries now play in our wars? Shouldn’t our Congress immediately hold hearings, subpoena contracts and open the proceedings to the public?

And finally, if we can’t wage war without mercenaries, shouldn’t we simply be waging fewer wars?

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent.
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