Gunning for profits

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On 16 September 17 Iraqi civilians were killed by Blackwater contractors on a convoy escort operation.

This brought the name of this private security company (PSC) into international news. The incident was neither unexpected nor unique, but the ensuing debate certainly was. Even the US-controlled Iraqi government has demanded the termination of Blackwater's contract.

There are currently 861 "contractors" working in Iraq under Blackwater CEO and founder Erik Prince. Each is paid $1,222 per day to protect US diplomats and high ranking military personnel.

"The employment of security contractors has become a critical department tool for providing services necessary to protect US embassies and consulates," said one department of state official during a private security hearing last month. Blackwater has grown by 80,000 percent in the last five years, receiving more than $1 billion in federal contracts during 2001-2006.

Yet we're not talking about subcontracting laundry logistics: these are soldiers carrying weapons in a foreign country without legitimacy - fighting for money, not for their nation.

This harsh reality reflects a long trend of privatising state missions in the era of neoliberalism. If use of mercenaries is as old as war itself, the development of PSCs is the result of a decade of evolution. They are organised as traditional firms, requiring legal contracts and providing security services to private firms, governments and international organisations, which benefit from the PSC's rapid deployment, their position outside the scope of any demobilisation, their supposed potential for financial gain and the unaccountability of their employers.

In Iraq more than 170 PSCs are currently deployed, with an estimated 40,000 security contractors on the ground. The Blackwater affair is the perfect example of the phenomenon: expanding too quickly, attracting greedy entrepreneurs and extolled as essential by employers, the security market has become a natural assistant to military missions without accountability. This apparent lack of will to control PSCs has led to more of what we have seen in Iraq since 2003.

The protection of US diplomats by Blackwater and others resulted in around 77 "incidents" in 2007 alone. Between 1 January 2005 and 30 April 2007 Blackwater was involved in 168 shooting incidents, in which it stands accused of firing first in 80 percent of the attacks, leading to the deaths of several Iraqis.

Despite Blackwater's name appearing more regularly than other companies in these incidents, Prince's firm is not alone as a suspect. Iraq is symbolic, but such events are not limited to this war.

"Contractors" are immune from prosecution under Iraqi legislation and PSCs have, until now, faced no effective judgment for abuses committed on foreign soil. Regulated by internal codes of conduct, or inappropriate and inapplicable laws, PSCs are subject to just two restraints: their morals and their economic viability.

The Blackwater example finally raises discussions around the impunity and employment of PSCs, even if they are too late in coming. But any expulsion of Blackwater from Iraq must not be used as an excuse to avoid the wider questions of the privatisation of wars.