America's own unlawful combatants?
So are they or aren't they?
Using private guards in Iraq could expose the U.S. to accusations of treaty violations, some experts think.
WASHINGTON -- As the Bush administration deals with the fallout from the recent killings of civilians by private security firms in Iraq, some officials are asking whether the contractors could be considered unlawful combatants under international agreements.
The question is an outgrowth of federal reviews of the shootings, in part because the U.S. officials want to determine whether the administration could be accused of treaty violations that could fuel an international outcry.
But the issue also holds practical and political implications for the administration's war effort and the image of the U.S. abroad.
If U.S. officials conclude that the use of guards is a potential violation, they may have to limit guards' tasks in war zones, which could leave more work for the already overstretched military.
Unresolved questions are likely to touch off new criticism of Bush's conduct of the unpopular Iraq war, especially given the broad definition of unlawful combatants the president has used in justifying his detention policies at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The issues surrounding the private security contractors are being examined by lawyers at the departments of State, Defense and Justice. Disagreements about the contractors' status exist between agencies and within the Pentagon itself.The problem is exacerbated because the private security forces are immune from Iraqi law per Paul Bremer. The result - no accountability.
"I think it is an unresolved issue that needs to be addressed," said a senior Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject. "But if that is in fact the case, what the heck are we doing?"
The use of private contractors by the U.S. military and governments worldwide began long before the U.S invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but it has mushroomed in recent years. With relatively little controversy, contractors have assumed a greater share of support and logistics duties traditionally handled by uniformed military, such as protecting diplomats inside a war zone.
On Sept. 16, a Blackwater USA security team guarding U.S. diplomats was involved in a shooting that killed as many as 17 Iraqis. Blackwater said its personnel were under attack, but Iraqis said the team began the shooting.
Other incidents portraying the private guards as aggressive and heavily armed have since come to light.
As I discussed here the Blackwater guards act more like wild west cowboys who shoot first and ask questions later. That appears to be the case in the September 16th Blackwater incident.
So what is a lawful and unlawful combatant?
The designation of lawful and unlawful combatants is set out in the Geneva Convention.Lawful combatants are nonmilitary personnel who operate under their military's chain of command. Others may carry weapons in a war zone but may not use offensive force. Under the international agreements, they may only defend themselves.I really don't see the Bush administration making any changes. There is the Hubris issue - as the Bush administration sees it to make a change is to admit a mistake, something they won't do. Second - eliminating the private security contractors would take money out of the pockets of their political supporters. Third - they would have to admit they don't have enough troops for the mission. And fourth - they have no use for international law and will break it because they think they can.
The amount of force being used in Iraq by security firms like Blackwater has raised questions.
The United States already has faced international criticism about its interrogation techniques and detention procedures, and charges that such practices do not adhere to international treaties. It was the government lawyers involved in those matters who first raised questions about the legal status of the private security contractors under Geneva Convention provisions.
But there is debate among those studying the question. Lawyers at the Justice Department are skeptical that the contractors could be considered unlawful combatants, but some in the State and Defense departments think the contractors in Iraq could be vulnerable to claims that their actions make them unlawful combatants.
If so, some experts say, the U.S. would have to pull them out of the war zone.
Legal experts widely agree that private contractors are allowed to use force to defend themselves. But the threshold between defensive and offensive force is ill-defined.
"In terms of these private military contractors, it really is, legally speaking, very convoluted," said the senior Defense official. "It is always true that people can defend themselves. The question then becomes: At what point does a contractor who is providing defensive security go beyond that?"