Contractor Immunity A Divisive Issue
In an early test of its imminent sovereignty, Iraq’s new government has been resisting a U.S. demand that thousands of foreign contractors here be granted immunity from Iraqi law, in the same way as U.S. military forces are now immune, according to Iraqi sources.
The U.S. proposal, although not widely known, has touched a nerve with some nationalist-minded Iraqis already chafing under the 14-month-old U.S.-led occupation. If accepted by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, it would put the highly visible U.S. foreign contractors into a special legal category, not subject to military justice and beyond the reach of Iraq’s justice system.
The U.S. request, confirmed Sunday by Allawi’s office, is one of a number of delicate issues revolving around government authority that will confront the incoming U.S. ambassador, John D. Negroponte, when Allawi’s interim government assumes formal sovereignty June 30.
Although the Bush administration repeatedly has promised that Iraqis will receive authentic sovereignty, the U.S. military has made it clear that U.S. officers will remain in charge of security, the country’s top concern. People here widely assume that U.S. influence will remain decisive for a long time in almost every domain.
The in-control status of U.S. troops and officials — from Humvee drivers who demand priority in traffic to civilian administrators intervening in the choice of Iraqi leaders — often has been cited by Iraqis who oppose the occupation on nationalist grounds. The civilian contractors, particularly armed security personnel, have generated similar resentment from Iraqis, many of whom long ago tired of having foreigners tell them where they can and cannot go.
The question of the contractors’ status also has arisen because of two U.S. contract employees at Abu Ghraib prison who were accused in a Pentagon report of participating in illegal abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The two — Steven Stephanowicz of CACI International, an Arlington-based defense firm, and John B. Israel of the Titan Corp. of San Diego — have not been charged with any crimes in Iraq or the United States, although some of their Army colleagues face military tribunals.
Granting mercenaries immunity from Iraqi law would be rather absurd, especially if they’re not subject to U.S. military justice system. I don’t buy the conduct of these “contractors” as a serious cause of the insurgent-terrorist coalition in Iraq but, clearly, Iraqi sovereingty needs to be as real as possible for the transition to have any chance of success. Coalition soldiers can be covered under a Status of Forces Agreement–that’s customary even in places like Germany and Japan–and diplomatic personnel are already given a high degree of immunity under international law. Mercenaries are neither soldiers nor diplomats, however, and should be accorded the same legal status as any foreign national working in an Iraqi firm.
The use of mercenaries for security work has obviously been a failed experiment. Not only do they seem to operate outside of the normal protocols of our professional military, but they have to be an irritant to potentially friendly Iraqi citizens. It’s one thing to take orders from uniformed soldiers from the military that toppled Saddam Hussein and liberated the country; it’s another to be pushed around by foreign security guards. There’s no reason we can’t hire that work out to Iraqis. Indeed, we should have done that with most of the work now being done by US contractors.