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Blackwater: irresponsible, unaccountable

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Yet another incident to add to the Blackwater log of misbehavior. Immunity seems to be the thing these days.

The helicopter was hovering over a Baghdad checkpoint into the Green Zone, one typically crowded with cars, Iraqi civilians and United States military personnel.

Suddenly, on that May day in 2005, the copter dropped CS gas, a riot-control substance the American military in Iraq can use only under the strictest conditions and with the approval of top military commanders. An armored vehicle on the ground also released the gas, temporarily blinding drivers, passers-by and at least 10 American soldiers operating the checkpoint.

“This was decidedly uncool and very, very dangerous,” Capt. Kincy Clark of the Army, the senior officer at the scene, wrote later that day. “It’s not a good thing to cause soldiers who are standing guard against car bombs, snipers and suicide bombers to cover their faces, choke, cough and otherwise degrade our awareness.”

Both the helicopter and the vehicle involved in the incident at the Assassins’ Gate checkpoint were not from the United States military, but were part of a convoy operated by Blackwater Worldwide, the private security contractor that is under scrutiny for its role in a series of violent episodes in Iraq, including a September shooting in downtown Baghdad that left 17 Iraqis dead.

None of the American soldiers exposed to the chemical, which is similar to tear gas, required medical attention, and it is not clear if any Iraqis did. Still, the previously undisclosed incident has raised significant new questions about the role of private security contractors in Iraq, and whether they operate under the same rules of engagement and international treaty obligations that the American military observes.

“You run into this issue time and again with Blackwater, where the rules that apply to the U.S. military don’t seem to apply to Blackwater,” said Scott L. Silliman, the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at the Duke University School of Law.

Officers and noncommissioned officers from the Third Infantry Division who were involved in the episode said there were no signs of violence at the checkpoint. Instead, they said, the Blackwater convoy appeared to be stuck in traffic and may have been trying to use the riot-control agent as a way to clear a path.

Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Blackwater, said the CS gas had been released by mistake.

“Blackwater teams in the air and on the ground were preparing a secure route near a checkpoint to provide passage for a motorcade,” Ms. Tyrrell said in an e-mail message. “It seems a CS gas canister was mistaken for a smoke canister and released near an intersection and checkpoint.” [Why in hell would they use a smoke canister in that situation? – LG]

She said that the episode was reported to the United States Embassy in Baghdad, and that the embassy’s chief security officer and the Department of Defense conducted a full investigation. The troops exposed to the gas also said they reported it to their superiors. But military officials in Washington and Baghdad said they could not confirm that an investigation had been conducted. Officials at the State Department, which contracted with Blackwater to provide diplomatic security, also could not confirm that an investigation had taken place.

About 20 to 25 American soldiers were at the checkpoint at the time of the incident, and at least 10 were exposed to the CS gas after “rotor wash” from the hovering helicopter pushed it toward them, according to officers who were there. A number of Iraqi civilians, both on foot and in cars waiting to go through the checkpoint, were also exposed. The gas can cause burning and watering eyes, skin irritation and coughing and difficulty breathing. Nausea and vomiting can also result.

Blackwater says it was permitted to carry CS gas under its contract at the time with the State Department. According to a State Department official, the contract did not specifically authorize Blackwater personnel to carry or use CS, but it did not prohibit it.

The military, however, tightly controls use of riot control agents in war zones. They are banned by an international convention on chemical weapons endorsed by the United States, although a 1975 presidential order allows their use by the United States military in war zones under limited defensive circumstances and only with the approval of the president or a senior officer designated by the president.

“It is not allowed as a method or means of warfare,” said Michael Schmitt, professor of international law at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “There are very, very strict restrictions on the use of CS gas in a war zone.”

In 2003, President Bush approved the use of riot control agents by the military in Iraq under the 1975 order, but only for such purposes as controlling rioting prisoners. At the time of Mr. Bush’s decision, there were also concerns that the Iraqi Army would use civilians as shields, particularly in a last-ditch battle in Baghdad, and some officials believed that riot control agents might be effective in such circumstances to reduce casualties.

A United States military spokesman in Baghdad refused to describe the current rules of engagement governing the use of riot control agents, but former Army lawyers say their use requires the approval of the military’s most senior commanders. “You never had a soldier with the authority to do it on his own,” said Thomas J. Romig, a retired major general who served as the chief judge advocate general of the United States Army from 2001 to 2005 and is now the dean of the Washburn School of Law in Topeka, Kan.

Several Army officers who have served in Iraq say they have never seen riot control agents used there by the United States military at all. Col. Robert Roth, commander of Task Force 4-64 AR of the Third Infantry Division, which was manning the Assassins’ Gate checkpoint at the time of the Blackwater incident, said that his troops were not issued any of the chemicals.

“We didn’t even possess any kind of riot control agents, and we couldn’t employ them if we wanted to,” said Colonel Roth, who is now serving in South Korea.

But the same tight controls apparently did not apply to Blackwater at the time of the incident. The company initially got a contract to provide security for American officials in Iraq with the Coalition Provisional Authority, an agreement which did not address the use of CS gas. After the authority went out of business, the State Department extended the contract for another year until rebidding it. Blackwater and two other companies — DynCorp and Triple Canopy — that now provide security are not permitted to use CS gas under their current contracts, the State Department said.

More at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

10 January 2008 at 8:12 am

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