Hired guns in Iraq: Unaccountable

The front page of today's Raleigh News & Observer features an eye-opening story about the 20,000+ private contractors operating in Iraq. Drawing on the reports submitted by the contractors themselves, it becomes clear these rent-an-army operations are accountable to no one:

About 6,000 non-Iraqi security contractors are operating in Iraq. During nine months in 2004-05, contractors reported firing into 61 civilian vehicles; no one was ever prosecuted. Security analysts say it is likely that such incidents are vastly underreported. [...]

In the documents, which cover nine months of the three-year-old war, contractors reported shooting into 61 vehicles they believed were threatening them. In just seven cases were Iraqis clearly attacking -- showing guns, shooting at contractors or detonating explosives.

There was no way to tell how many civilians were hurt, or how many were innocent: In most cases, the contractors drove away. No contractors have been prosecuted for a mistaken shooting in Iraq.

"What you've done is privatize the fog of war," said Peter W. Singer, an expert on military contracting with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The most infamous is North Carolina-based Blackwater International, known for their rampages in Fallujah which led to four Blackwater men being killed (and controversy when DKos famously said "I feel nothing over the death of merceneries." [sorry, can't find the link].

The fact that contractors have self-reported this many incidents with such candor signals that this is likely just the tip of the iceberg:

Because the reports are voluntary, experts say they probably represent only a fraction of such incidents, and cases in which contractors broke laws or rules are unlikely to be reported.

"If you've got 60 cases where contractors shot into cars, there are probably 600," said James Yeager, a Camden, Tenn., arms trainer whose team shot at cars half a dozen times during his 11 months as a security contractor.

Even the man representing the contractor trade association, the International Peace Operations Association (their conferences must be fun) acknowledges the attacks under-reported by at least 50%.