Contractors oppose move to end immunity from Iraqi law
July 5, 2008
Contractors working for the U.S. military in Iraq say a move to end their immunity from Iraqi law would make many leave their jobs instead of face a justice system they do not trust.
Earlier this week, the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said the immunity issue was one of the American concessions made in ongoing negotiations over a long-term security agreement. Since the announcement, contractors — both current and former workers in Iraq — have been buzzing about its implications. There are an estimated 180,000 foreign contractors working in Iraq, more than there are U.S. troops in the country. More than 1,000 have been killed.
"Having worked for two years and two months in Iraq, I can tell you without a doubt, I would in no way work if I fell under Iraqi Law," a deputy sheriff who trains Iraqi police said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes. "Are you kidding? You wouldn’t be able to get but the most desperate people to work if they fell under their ridiculous laws."
Like almost all contractors working in Iraq, he is not allowed to do media interviews without approval from his company, so he asked that his name not be used.
Other contractors expressed similar concerns about the Iraqi legal system.
"I would immediately have to consider my options concerning leaving this country," another Department of Defense contractor said. "They, the Iraqis, cannot rule themselves and now they want to try and rule contractors."
Some said that unless laws are broken in the first place there’s nothing to worry about.
"I am confident if all [security] contract members stick to their drills and follow the rules of engagement as laid down by the U.S. military or respective companies, there shouldn’t be a problem in the near future," a member of a private security team said.
Under a provision instituted shortly after the invasion, security contractors have been immune from Iraqi law. Under a change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, they can now be charged and tried in military courts.
The first such case — against an interpreter accused of stabbing another interpreter — was completed earlier this month. The contractor pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time in a military detention facility.
Debate over the status of contractors peaked last year when guards with the Blackwater security company allegedly shot and killed 17 people in a Baghdad incident. Iraqi officials say the guards shot indiscriminately; Blackwater officials have said their guards came under attack.
Blackwater officials declined comment this week on the reported immunity negotiations, saying it would wait until an agreement is announced.
A new agreement between Iraq and the U.S. must be reached before December, when the U.N. mandate under which U.S. forces currently work expires.
Jaco Botes is a security contractor who has worked in Iraq for four years. Last year, he founded the International Contractors Association, which provides members legal and moral support and — more generally — seeks to dispel the notion that the profession is "a bed of dollar bills."
Botes said this week that a vast majority of the group’s 2,500 members would think seriously about leaving Iraq if the immunity deal is cemented.
In his own posting to the group’s online discussion board, Botes voiced many of the same concerns.
Botes brought up issues such as who would represent contractors in legal disputes and how the Iraqi public’s perception — marked by incidents such as the Blackwater shooting — affect the process.
"We do not ask for much. We don’t expect Welcome Home banners or medals or even a pat on the back (we get paid right?)" he wrote, noting it was his personal opinion. "What I expect is to be acknowledged as an important part of the whole effort to bring peace and stability to this region. In my mind this is a package deal. By taking away contractor immunity, contractors are being marked as expendable assets — assets that will be placed in the hands of a very shaky and corrupt law system."