A bitter glee was the prevailing reaction in Baghdad to Monday's indictment in the U.S. of five Blackwater guards accused of killing 17 unarmed civilians at a busy intersection in the Iraqi capital last year. "It's about time they pay for their crimes," said Hosham Abdel Kader, a 53-year-old who was celebrating the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday with his family at a restaurant in the mainly-Shi'ite Karrada district. "I recoil, I freeze when I see those mercenaries on the street."
Abdel Kader's resentment and fear of the private security contractors hired by the U.S. is widespread in Iraq. The hired guns, who protect diplomats, dignitaries and businesspeople, tear through the streets of the capital in convoys of armored SUVs modern-day cowboys armed to the teeth as they ride roughshod over civilian traffic.
In a few weeks, though, Abdel Kader and others may feel differently. Under the terms of the recently approved bilateral U.S-Iraqi security pact (which takes effect on Jan. 1) the 30,000 or so private security contractors operating in Iraq will be stripped of legal immunity and become subject to Iraqi jurisdiction. The retraction of that get-out-of-jail-free card may prompt a change in the way these firms operate. "I think private security companies are toning it down now," said Lawrence Peter, director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq. "The number of incidents of shooting that have occurred over say the last 12 to 16 months are way down."
Last year's shooting incident prompted greater U.S oversight of its outsourced warriors in the first operational theater to see the Pentagon rely so extensively on hired guns. The U.S government, its Iraqi counterpart and other groups have paid between $6 billion and $10 billion to private security contractors in Iraq from the start of the war in 2003 through to 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office report published in August. And, as U.S troops draw down ahead of the planned complete withdrawal in 2010, the role of security contractors here may even expand.
At the moment, private contractors protect people and property for U.S agencies, and for the Iraqi government and businesses. As Iraq seeks to attract more foreign investment and expertise, private security firms may be engaged more frequently to escort well-heeled clients in a country rich in resources and business opportunities, but rife with security threats. Given the loss of legal immunity, however, the risks of operating in Iraq have also increased for private security firms, potentially driving up insurance costs and making it more difficult, or more expensive, to attract Western employees. "We're taking a wait and see approach," said Peter. So is everyone else.