General Petraeus has come and General Petraeus has gone and, though his manly bearing and neato pie charts left the pundits swooning, the American people remain unmoved. According to a CBS poll, “Only about one in three (31 percent) said the surge has made things in Iraq better, while more than half (51 percent) say it’s had no impact. Eleven percent say it’s made things worse.”

Meanwhile, the horror show rolls on, with the atrocity du jour involving private contractors from the sinister Blackwater agency, allegedly mowing down 8 civilians and wounding 13 others.

The incident epitomises what we’ve done to Iraq.

Like most of the companies profiteering from the war, Blackwater enjoys direct links to Republican politics. Its owner, Erik Prince, has been a donor to the Bush’s campaigns; its vice-president Cofer Black serves Republican front-runner Mitt Romney as a security adviser.

The ex-soldiers who work for Blackwater are sometimes Americans but the job necessarily attracts people from all sorts of unsavoury backgrounds, such as apartheid South Africa, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, and Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia.

Indeed, it’s quipped that Afrikaans has become “the third-most-spoken language in Iraq”.

No-one really knows how many of these “contractors” infest the country: most journalists put the figure at about 20,000 but Jeremy Scahill, author of a book on Blackwater, claims it’s more like 180,000.

Though the Iraqi government talks of prosecuting the men involved in the latest incident, this is almost certainly bluster. The contractors work out of reach of both American and Iraqi law, as Alex Koppelman and Mark Benjamin explain in Salon:

Because of an order promulgated by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the now-defunct American occupation government, there appears to be almost no chance that the contractors involved would be, or could be, successfully prosecuted in any court in Iraq. CPA Order 17 says private contractors working for the U.S. or coalition governments in Iraq are not subject to Iraqi law. Should any attempt be made to prosecute Blackwater in the United States, meanwhile, it’s not clear what law, if any, applies.

Heavily armed, un-uniformed men, fighting outside legal jurisdiction: anywhere else, they would be illegal combatants. In Bush’s Iraq, they call themselves businessmen.

Peter Fray

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