Blackwater's killing of at least nine civilians in downtown Baghdad Sunday leaves the Bush Administration with a hard choice. Either leave an intolerable status quo in place, and stand by a 2004 Coalition Provisional Authority edict that puts security contractors above Iraqi law. Or divert military resources to replace private security contractors.
Kicking Blackwater out of Iraq, as Prime Minister Maliki suggested, buys the Administration nothing. Blackwater has a cowboy reputation, but the team that pulled the trigger Sunday more than likely acted within the rules of engagement. With the caveat that first reports from the field are usually wrong, what apparently happened was that mortar rounds landed in the vicinity of the convoy. The Blackwater shooters assumed they were under attack. When a car bore down on the convoy, they made a second wrong assumption: a suicide bomber was behind the wheel. Things happened fast, and the Blackwater team fired on the car, killing a child and two adults. We can second-guess Blackwater all we want, but the ground truth is Iraq is a shoot first and ask questions later war.
For Iraqis this is all infuriatingly irrelevant. They look at Blackwater as trigger-happy mercenaries, and Iraqis don't want any armed foreign security contractors in their country. Do we let Iraqi embassy private security contractors race around Washington or New York, machine guns sticking out the window, to prevent carjackings?
Granted, Washington and New York aren't Baghdad. Still, the fact is security contractors are a daily reminder for Iraqis that their country is occupied, and they are second-class citizens. The insult is not just that security contractors are allowed to use lethal force and not worry about going to jail; a Western security contractor will make in a week what an Iraqi might make in a year. Private security contractors are a humiliation equal to the humiliations that provoked the Boxer Rebellion in China or drove Iranians to overthrow the Shah. Security contractors may be keeping our officials alive, but they are not winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqis.
Papering over the problem by expelling Blackwater from Iraq leaves dozens of other companies working in Iraq, with their fingers on the trigger. With anywhere from 25,000 to 48,000 security contractors in country, we're bound to have another incident like Sunday's.
What the Administration should do is rescind Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17, the decree that puts foreign security contractors beyond the reach of Iraqi law. This would effectively close down private security companies. There is no reason the State Department cannot provide its own security; State security officers are under diplomatic immunity. If there's a questionable shooting, the Iraqi government at least will have the satisfaction of declaring the shooter persona non grata under the Vienna Convention.
With violence down, and the surge apparently having an effect, now is the time to make a gesture to Iraqis. We can show we are serious about returning their sovereignty to them by pulling out private security contractors, even if it means using U.S. troops to fill the void.
Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down