Contractors Nervous About Losing Immunity in Iraq

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The UN mandate governing the US military’s deployment in Iraq will expire next month. To negotiate the way forward, Baghdad and Washington have been in feverish talks about an official Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which will set parameters for the US presence in Iraq, as well as set a date certain for withdrawal. US officials have now presented their Iraqi counterparts with that they call a “final text,” committing US troops to be withdrawn to their bases by next June and withdrawn from Iraq entirely no later than 2011. Baghdad has been cagey about assenting to a final agreement for myriad political reasons, although today’s New York Times suggests that Obama’s election victory might help move things along—the Iraqis actually believe his stated desire to pull out the troops is sincere.

Fine, but what about private contractors? The “final text” US officials presented this week does not include immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for privately employed personnel, be they with security firms or international NGOs. The risk of seeing their employees in the dock in Baghdad or elsewhere for alleged violations of Iraqi law is giving private industry fits and leading to speculation of an “exodus” of private contractors once the UN mandate expires.

The industry is so concerned, in fact, that the president of one of its leading trade groups fired off a letter (.pdf), dated October 8, to Condoleeza Rice, suggesting that loss of contractor immunity could put the success of the US effort in Iraq at risk. Stan Soloway of the Professional Services Council, which counts leading Iraq contractors like Blackwater, DynCorp, Kroll, CACI, BAE, SAIC, EODT, and Bechtel among its members, warned against the “unintended consequences” of lifting immunity. Here’s an excerpt:

According to recent estimates from U.S. Central Command and the Congressional Budget Office, there are tens of thousands of contractor employees currently working in Iraq proper, about twenty percent of the whom are U.S. citizens. The vast majority of these individuals are supporting critical infrastructure and economic, health care, agricultural, education, financial and other development activities. Many of them are the technical experts providing program and project management, design and other guidance, training and assistance needed to ensure the success of redevelopment and reconstruction initiatives. Our member companies are deeply concerned that given the still embryonic nature of the Iraqi legal system and the general in-country environment, the absence of reasonable protections under law that provide for adequate due process and more could have very real, deleterious impacts on the success of those critical missions.

Soloway went on to request a meeting with Rice to talk things over. There’s no word on whether it took place.

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