Hundreds of U.S. Contractors Detained in Iraq

And the tragic connection to the strong re-emergence of al-Qaeda.

The government of Iraq has temporarily detained hundreds of private US contractors in recent weeks, mostly for paperwork violations related to weapons registrations and visas.  The detentions -- which can last from 24-96 hours or more -- are the result of bureaucratic infighting between Iraqi government agencies who seek to control the movement of foreign contractors.

The result is mass confusion. A trade group representing the contractors in Washington has written a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton begging the State Department to intervene, but there is apparently little that can be done to solve the bureaucratic turf wars that have resulted in what one Iraqi businessman who works with the contractors called "a state of chaos."

The detentions of American citizens are taking place against the backdrop of the strong re-emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the nation's continuing slide into sectarian conflict, and accusations of a power grab by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by his coalition partners who are being frozen out by the Shiite majority.

The New York Times reports that another reason for the detentions is that Iraq is "asserting its sovereignty" by developing its own set of rules to deal with the foreigners. Such may be the case, but the result of the crackdown has been what one blogger who follows the industry says is "controlled harassment." Indeed, the Times reports that more than a hundred private contractors were detained at the Baghdad airport for a week wrestling with visa issues. Evidently, no 2011 visas have been renewed and no 2012 visas have been issued.

The embassy in Baghdad is overwhelmed. They issued a statement saying, in part, "The Embassy's ability to respond to situations in which U.S. citizens are arrested or otherwise detained throughout Iraq is limited, including in and around Baghdad." Last Thursday, 4 embassy employees were stopped and detained for two hours by Iraqi security forces.

The letter to Secretary Clinton, signed by Doug Brooks, president of the International Stability Operations Association, said that they wanted "to ensure that you [Clinton] are aware of the seriousness of this issue," and "the impact it is having on our members' ability to support the transition and government programs in Iraq and ask your assistance in working with the Government of Iraq to reach a prompt solution." The "impact" is that it has brought much of the transition and reconstruction work to a standstill. Brooks told the Washington Post that it is becoming impossible for his members to move in Iraq. "It's been a nightmare," he told the Post.

"While private organizations are often able to resolve low-level disputes and irregularities, this issue is beyond our ability to resolve and we need the assistance of the Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Iraq," Brooks wrote in his letter to Clinton. Specifically, Brooks pointed to the movement of private security guards protecting the hundreds of businesses and their employees who are regularly stopped and detained at checkpoints by Iraqi security personnel. When the armed guards can't travel, the businesses are paralyzed as well.

An Iraqi businessman was quoted in the Post as saying, "We are, on one side, trying to promote Iraq to get foreign investors, but from the other side, the government is creating all kinds of difficulties...They just create rules overnight," he said.

The harassment of the contractors is partly the result of the conflicts over incidents that occurred during the occupation where the Iraqi government believed that some of the security personnel were trigger-happy and were careless in firing where civilians congregated. One such incident in 2007 resulted in the deaths of 17 civilians, although all charges against the Blackwater personnel involved were eventually dismissed, mostly because of technicalities. The US military determined that the guards opened fire "without provocation" and used "excessive force.

The Post is reporting that there are three departments of the Iraqi government -- defense, internal security and transportation -- vying for control of the more than 90,000 foreign contractors in Iraq. It is not a coincidence that the defense ministry is currently headed by a Sunni and interior by a Shiite, although there are negotiations under way to appoint new ministers to those two vital departments. The sectarian split in Iraq is growing as the Maliki government is seeking to consolidate its power and his coalition partners -- including Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister and head of the party that received the most votes in the 2010 elections -- warns of "a political process which is not inclusive, [that] can only destroy the future of this country."

Allawi told CNN, "Sectarianism is coming back in force in this country. I think that Iraq is passing through the most dangerous phase through its history now." He says that the US has a moral obligation to use its diplomatic influence to bring "sanity" back to Iraq.

Allawi backed out of the power sharing deal with Maliki when the prime minister refused to accord his Iraqi National Movement the number and importance of ministries commensurate with his narrow victory at the polls. Since then, Maliki has been running roughshod over the minority Sunni and Kurdish parties who are part of his coalition, leading eventually to charging his Sunni vice president, Tarez al-Hashemi, with heading up a death squad during the civil war and after. Hashemi fled to Kurdistan and there has been a standoff ever since as the Kurds refuse to turn him over to Maliki despite an Iraqi court order that they do so. (Iraqi courts are largely controlled by the Shiites.)

The Sunnis have begun pushing back. On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al Mutlaq called on Maliki to resign, saying he was turning Iraq into a "dictatorship." In an interview with Gulf News, Al Mutlaq said, "The longer Al Maliki stays in power, the higher the possibility of a divided Iraq." Mutlaq's Sunni backed party has been boycotting parliament and cabinet meetings in protest of what he says are Maliki's efforts "to consolidate power, particularly over state security forces."

It is no accident that Maliki's strong arm tactics began almost before the last American vehicle had left Iraqi soil last month. President Obama's precipitous withdrawal from Iraq may be politically popular at home, but it is turning into a disaster for the Iraqis.

That fact is borne out by Al-Qaeda in Iraq apparently being rejuvenated by the departure of American troops. They have resumed mass casualty terrorist attacks that have killed more than 200 Iraqis -- mostly Shiites -- in the last month. Over the weekend, 53 Shiite pilgrims were killed by a car bomb in Basra. On Sunday, an apparent attempt by Sunni insurgents to affect the release of some prisoners resulted in 18 people killed, including the attackers, at a jail near Ramadi. And on Monday, 11 Iraqis were killed outside of Mosul in another sectarian-inspired attack.

Also on Monday, three other attacks killed 4 and injured dozens. Not all the attacks are thought to be carried out by al-Qaeda. But the political situation is having an effect on what's happening on the ground in Iraq as sectarian tensions skyrocket and the fragile fabric of Iraq's political culture unravels.

The crisis appears to be beyond the ability -- and the desire -- of Prime Minister Maliki to solve. An attempt is being made to get multi-party negotiations going again but there is no sign that Maliki will share power with the Sunnis and Kurds in any meaningful way. The more intransigent he becomes, the more distrust he sows with other political blocs who are more and more disenfranchised with each passing day.

The possibility that Iraq will fly apart at the seams with Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites forming their own autonomous regions has perhaps never been greater. The real danger is if Iraq were divided, the weakness of its separate parts would invite al-Qaeda to set up shop and Iran to further dominate the Shiites. This would present a brand new set of strategic problems for the United States and our friends in the region, and cause untold suffering and bloodshed for the Iraqi people.

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