The Blackwater affair: Licenses? Who needs licenses?

If you spend any amount of time at all in Iraq — and I mean that literally, any time at all — you’ll soon observe corruption. Iraq is a country that spent 35 years in survival mode, under the boot heel of a man who admired both Hitler and Stalin and who sought to combine the brutality of both on his way to becoming the next Nebuchadnezzar. The society was traumatized, and its people evidently learned to live by a police state version of the Wimpy rule: I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for what I’m swiping from you today, and mostly because by Tuesday the Mukhabarrat may have swiped me, myself and I, never to be seen again. I’ll be tortured and probably killed, but at least I won’t be out the couple of dinars I would have paid you.

I give you that as a preamble to the latest story about the Blackwater affair because it’s important to understanding how things work in Iraq. You’ve probably heard by now, that the North Carolina-based Blackwater security company is in hot water with Iraq’s Interior Ministry over an incident in which “innocent Iraqis” were killed. I added the scare quotes because the term “innocent” means different things to different people, and it’s not at all clear yet that whoever was killed in that incident was innocent in any way that we would commonly use the term. It’s not clear yet that they weren’t innocent either, or that at least some of them weren’t. It’s all under investigation, but the Interior Ministry has pulled a Murtha and gone ahead and convicted Blackwater anyway. The consequences of said conviction include revoking Blackwater’s license. It’s at this point that someone needs to cue up the laugh track while someone else pops up on camera and says “Licenses? We don’t need no steenkin’ licenses!”

Private security contractors in Iraq say most expatriate companies in the country operate without licenses because corrupt government officials who issue them demand bribes of up to $1 million.

“A couple of companies tried to get licenses, but no one has licenses because the bribes they were asking were too big, up to $1 million,” said a member of the elite Blackwater USA security company which has been ordered by Iraqi authorities to halt its operations.

Yes, we’re talking about the same Ministry that’s accusing Blackwater of crimes. It’s a Ministry run by bribes, that answers in part to the very paragon of virtue himself, the so-called “Mullah Atari,” Moqtada al-Sadr.

Exploiting that anger, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded the government ban all 48,000 foreign security contractors, whom Iraqis have long viewed as mercenaries, the Associated Press reported.

If nothing else, that’s another reason that we should have taken Mookie out a long time ago.

So if just about every private contractor in Iraq operates without licenses, what’s really going on with Blackwater?

Well, internal politics seem to have a lot to do with it: We could be looking at a shakedown to make up for the bribes that Blackwater presumably didn’t pay. We could be looking at an attempt to weaken the US position in Iraq overall, since Blackwater and similar security companies have about 48,000 personnel on the scene engaged in various security duties. (Do ya think Mookie wouldn’t like to see 48,000 guns that ultimately answer to the US taken out of the game?) And like everything else in Iraq, putting a fixed number on it reduces its actual complexity by several orders of magnitude. A drive through the base complex around the Baghdad airport, for instance, will take you through private security guards from enough different continents and countries that you’d swear you were cruising through a muddy UN session: Nigerians man this gate, Brazilians man that post over there, and Peruvians are running that street from there to there, but beyond them, it’s the South Africans or someone else who will ask to see your papers, please.

I’ll hazard a guess that all the companies hiring and supporting all those nationalities probably aren’t licensed to the nth degree. They’re probably sufficiently paid up on their bribes, though.

Back to the incident that started the current row:

The incident, which left eight Iraqi civilians dead by most accounts, occurred Sunday when Blackwater was escorting a convoy through one of Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods.

According to the North Carolina-based company, the convoy was attacked by armed insurgents using small-arms fire. The U.S. contractors returned fire to get their clients out of the area safely.

“By doctrine, you return fire — that’s how you stay alive,” said the Blackwater contractor, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “They killed who they needed to kill to get out of there. The teams that try to be all nicey-nicey, guess what? Their guys get kidnapped,” he said.

Several expatriate security contractors who did not open fire have been taken hostage while protecting their clients in western Iraq near Ramadi and in Baghdad.

Along with the bewildering corruption, that’s another reality in Iraq: At times, it’s a kill or be killed kind of place. The fate of those Blackwater contractors killed in Fallujah in 2004 surely informs decisions made in real time today. Undoubtedly most would take condemnation from the Interior Ministry over having their corpses rhetorically spat upon by the likes of Kos after thugs have killed and mutilated them.

I’m loath to predict how the Blackwater affair will turn out, but it is hard to imagine the military or State Dept (especially the State Dept) getting much done without Blackwater’s guys and guns around doing the jobs they’ve been doing for four years now. It probably will blow over. But the corruption is probably there to stay.

Today, the Iraqi government appeared to back down from statements Monday that it had revoked Blackwater’s license and would order its 1,000 personnel to leave the country, Associated Press said. It is not clear whether Blackwater was operating under an active license.

The special operations contractor, who has been in Iraq for four years, said he had seen the Ministry of Interior (MOI) demand bribes of security companies in three different contracts.

“You would apply for a license and it would stall, then someone from the MOI would show up and say that the license application was sitting in a box and that for a certain fee it could be pushed through,” said the contractor, also asking that his name not be used.

The size of the bribe depended on the size of the company, he said, starting in the area of $100,000 and up.

That all sounds hopelessly corrupt, but honestly, quite a bit of Europe doesn’t operate much more clean than that. Of course, Europeans don’t have Sadrist death squads lurking in the background to enforce and collect on the bribes.