Friday, November 21, 2008

US Loses Immunity

US Contractors Lose Immunity in Iraq Security Deal

Thousands of contractors, both private Americans and non-Iraqi foreigners working in key roles for the United States in Iraq, will lose immunity and be subject to Iraqi law under new security arrangements, Bush administration officials say.

Pentagon and State Department officials notified companies that provide contract employees, like Blackwater Worldwide, Dyncorp International, Triple Canopy and KBR, of the changes on Thursday as the Iraqi parliament continues contentious debate on a security deal that will govern the presence of American forces in Iraq after January.

That so-called Status of Forces, or SOFA, agreement, which gives the Iraqi government only limited jurisdiction over U.S. troops and Defense Department civilians, excludes Defense Department contractors, two officials said.

The officials spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity after giving the same information to representatives of 172 invited contracting companies in two separate meetings earlier Thursday in Washington.

"Contractors and grantees can no longer expect that they will enjoy the wide range of immunity from Iraqi law that has been in effect since 2003," a State Department official said, reading from the text of a statement presented to the contractors.

Iraq will have "the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over" such workers, who are employed in various support roles for the U.S. military, including food service, transportation and sanitation, they said.

The agreement does not mention State Department contractors, who mainly provide security for U.S. diplomats in Iraq, but their immunity is expected to be revoked by the Iraqi government after the agreement takes effect pending Iraqi parliamentary approval, the officials said.

"In the future, contractors and grantees can expect to be fully subject to Iraqi criminal and civil laws and to the procedures of the Iraqi judicial system," the official said, adding that contractors faced similar situations in all other areas of the world, including in Afghanistan.

It was not immediately clear if any contractors would choose to stop working in Iraq because of the changes. The Pentagon official allowed that some contractors had expressed concern, but stressed that none so far had said specifically that: "If I lose immunity, I will walk."

The Pentagon employs some 163,000 contractors in Iraq. Of those, about 17 percent are U.S. citizens, 34 percent are third-country nationals and 49 percent are Iraqis. The State Department employees 5,500 contractors in Iraq, of which all but 1,000 are U.S. citizens. The U.S. Agency for International Development employees another 4,800 contractors. A breakdown of their nationalities was not immediately available.

Under existing rules that date from 2003 and the occupation government of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority non-Iraqi citizens working for companies under contracts to U.S. government agencies in Iraq are immune from Iraqi law.

That status has become increasingly controversial, particularly after a September 2007 incident in which private Blackwater security guards protecting a State Department convoy opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and prompting a huge outcry in Iraq.

The State Department official said he expected the U.S. and Iraqi governments would be able to reach a separate understanding under which private security guards protecting American diplomats would be allowed to use "appropriate defensive force" if they were attacked. But, he could not say when that understanding might be reached.

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