US House Passes Bill: Contractors Like Blackwater in Iraq Accountable

The US House of Representatives passed legislation on Thursday to make  all government contractors in Iraq accountable for their actions under the US criminal code.

This reflects growing concerns about the conduct of private contractors in Iraq, especially in the aftermath of the September 16  incident in which Blackwater employees escorting a US State Department motorcade shot and killed 11 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.

The bill proposes to extend the jurisdiction of the current Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act to include workers contracted by the State Department and other agencies. The Act already applies to all Defense Department contractors.

The legislation sailed through the House with a vote of 389-30, but is tipped to counter stiff opposition from the Bush administration and possibly the Senate.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who authored the bill, said that “while the military goes to great lengths to ensure accountability, thousands of armed civilians in Iraq are not held responsible for actions that could damage the US mission and our national security interests”.

There are currently an estimated 180,000 contractors working for US government agencies in Iraq – a contingent that easily outnumbers the US military presence.

The furor over private contractors came to a head after the September 16 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square, which sparked the seventh investigation into Blackwater shootings in Iraq.

On Christmas Eve last year, an intoxicated Blackwater contractor shot dead the Iraqi Vice President’s body guard. The contractor was quickly flown back to the US and dismissed by Blackwater, yet he has not been charged with any criminal offense to date.

Blackwater’s founder and CEO, Erik Prince, responded to questions about the Christmas Eve incident when he testified before the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday. “We fired him, we fined him … but we as a private organization can’t do any more. We can’t flog him, we can’t incarcerate him … We are not empowered to enforce US law.”

Mr Prince also said that he would “be happy to see further investigation and prosecution by the Justice Department”.

Military commanders have long complained that the intimidating and dangerous actions by private contractors – and their lack of accountability – have stoked anti-US sentiment in Iraq, which has compromised the US counterinsurgency mission and endangered both contractors and US troops.

Yet the Bush administration “strongly opposes” the legislation passed by the House on Thursday, citing a number of “grave concerns” including the potential for “extensive litigation” on jurisdictional issues, “unintended and intolerable consequences” in the creation of US jurisdictions overseas and the “intrusion on decisions the Constitution reserves to the Executive Branch”.

The White House also said the bill would place “inappropriate and unwarranted burdens” on the Defense Department, which would be required to support all criminal investigations undertaken by the FBI.

In an interview with Reuters, Mr Price shot back that the White House’s objections should “infuriate anyone who believes in the rule of law”.

Senate Democratic leaders are expected to introduce similar legislation during the coming weeks. If it receives the same level of bipartisan support as the House bill, it may be impossible to stop, even with a presidential veto.

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