08 October 2007

The scandal of Blackwater

The only punishment doled out to US security men involved in deadly shootings is a jet home

Erik Prince, the secretive 38-year-old owner of the leading US mercenary firm Blackwater, has seldom appeared in public. But on Tuesday he found himself in front of a Congressional committee, TV cameras trained on his boyish face. The official focus of the hearing, convened by Henry Waxman's committee on oversight and government reform, was two questions that should have been asked long ago: whether the government's heavy reliance on private security is serving US interests in Iraq, and whether the specific conduct of Blackwater has advanced or impeded US efforts.

What put Prince in the hot seat were the infamous Nisour Square shootings in Baghdad on September 16, in which as many as 28 Iraqi civilians may have been killed. Waxman said the justice department had asked him not to take testimony on the incident because it was the subject of an FBI investigation. In Prince's prepared testimony, he said that people should wait for the results of the investigation - originally handled by the state department - "for a complete understanding of that event".

But the investigative process so far has hardly been impartial. Just hours before Prince's testimony, CNN reported that the state department's initial report on the shooting was drafted by a Blackwater contractor, Darren Hanner. The next day came the news that the FBI team assigned to look into the incident in Baghdad had a contract with Blackwater itself to provide security for their investigation.

At the hearing Prince boldly declared that in Iraq his men have acted "appropriately at all times" and appeared to deny that the company had ever killed innocent civilians, only acknowledging that some may have died as a result of "ricochets" and "traffic accidents". This assertion is simply unbelievable. According to a report prepared by Waxman's staff, since 2005 Blackwater operatives in Iraq have opened fire on at least 195 occasions. In more than 80% of these instances, the Blackwater agents fired first.

Not surprisingly, Prince said he supported the continuation of Order 17 in Iraq, the Bremer-era decree giving organisations such as Blackwater immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Prince said Blackwater operatives who "don't hold to the standard, they have one decision to make: window or aisle" on their flight home. In all, Blackwater has sacked more than 120 of its operatives in Iraq. Given that being fired and sent home have been the only disciplinary consequences faced by Blackwater employees, it is worth asking: what did they do to earn this punishment?

Waxman's committee scrutinised one incident: the killing of one of the Iraqi vice-president's bodyguards by an allegedly drunk Blackwater contractor last Christmas Eve. Prince confirmed that Blackwater had whisked him out of Iraq and fired him, and said that he had been fined and billed for his return ticket.

According to the committee report, after the killing the state department chargé d'affaires recommended that Blackwater make a "sizable payment" to the bodyguard's family. The official suggested $250,000, but the department's diplomatic security service said this was too much and could cause Iraqis to "try to get killed". In the end, the state department and Blackwater are said to have agreed on a $15,000 payment.

A pattern is emerging from the Congressional investigation into Blackwater: the state department urging the company to pay what amounts to hush money to victims' families while facilitating the return of contractors involved in deadly incidents for which not a single one has faced prosecution.

· Jeremy Scahill, a contributing writer for the Nation, is the author of Blackwater: the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army-(The Guardian)

No comments:

Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.