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Blackwater in deep waters
Private military contractors employed by the US government in Iraq are once again in the news following the killing of 11 Iraqi civilians recently by the employees of one such firm, Blackwater US, inviting widespread opprobrium.
WHILE OFFICIALLY, the US has around 160,000 troops in Iraq, there are now almost around 200,000 private military contractors deployed in Iraq by the US government. This means that regular US forces have now been outnumbered by a bevy of private contractors who are largely outside the ambit of law. While there has been international opprobrium over the conduct of US forces and some have been sentenced too, private contractors have been alleged to be even carrying out interrogations in many prisons, thereby playing a key role in the US-led occupation of Iraq.
Some of the leading private contractors include Blackwater USA, DynCorp, CACI International Inc, Titan Corporation, Triple Canopy, Erinys and ArmorGroup. These corporations have now built private armies so powerful that they can rival some nations’ armies. The moot question is to whom these private contractors owe their loyalty? Some independent estimates claim that that up to 40 cents of every tax dollar spent on the Iraq war goes to these private contractors. 
In the latest incident of highhandedness by the employees of such private security firms, on 16 September 2007, Blackwater USA security personnel killed 11 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad after ‘its convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents’. However, eyewitnesses have vigorously disputed the account and said the Blackwater employees fired without any provocation. The initial US embassy response to the incident has been along predicted lines when it said that there had been an exchange of fire when the Blackwater personnel guarding a US diplomatic convoy reacted to a car bomb in the vicinity. Though it has been confirmed that there was a car bomb, it was around 500m from the convoy and took place at least 20 minutes before the American convoy arrived at the place where the shooting took place.
Blackwater USA was founded in 1997 by a former US Navy Seal Erik Prince and is headquartered in North Carolina. Even before this incident, Blackwater security personnel have been much criticized, especially by ordinary Iraqi civilians who have decried the high-handedness of its employees. The Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki has decried the shooting as a criminal act. An investigation has been ordered into the incident and Blackwater's licence to operate in Iraq has been suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry. The US embassy in Baghdad has issued a directive suspending all road travel by their diplomats, outside the heavily- fortified Green Zone in Baghdad till further orders.
Blackwater USA consists of nine different business units: Blackwater Training Center, Blackwater Target Systems, Blackwater Security Consulting, Blackwater Canine, Maritime Security, manufacturing of custom Armored Vehicles, Parachute Jump Team, Aviation, and Raven Development Group. Blackwater does not merely identify itself as a ‘private security company’, but as a ‘professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping, and stability operations firm, which provides turnkey solutions’. It was in the news earlier in 2004 when the mutilated bodies of four of its contractors were hung from a bridge in Falluja, Iraq.
Private security firms like Blackwater USA are useful political tool for the US government since their casualties go unaccounted for and this helps the US government escape opprobrium at home. However, it is also a fact that such private security personnel are a law unto themselves and are rarely punished. They are not under the jurisdiction of military courts nor civilian courts.
 These private security contractors earn more than the regular soldiers, which affects the morale of the regular soldiers. Relying so much on private security contractors is bound to boomerang on the Americans as has happened in the recent case when Blackwater USA has suddenly become a political hot potato.
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