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.