Congress passes bill to govern private armies

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Despite strong opposition from the Bush administration, the House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a Bill that would make Blackwater and other private security contractors in Iraq and other countries subject to US law.

The bill, passed by 389 to 30 with massive bipartisan support, is the most tangible action yet by Congress to rein in the contracting companies, which hitherto have operated with legal immunity in Iraq, exempted from prosecution in Iraqi courts yet not subject to the military law that governs the conduct of regular US troops in the field.

Blackwater is one of the world's largest private security companies. But the controversy that has long surrounded its operations in Iraq came to a head last month with a deadly shooting incident in central Baghdad, in which at least 14 Iraqi civilians were killed and 18 injured after a convoy of Blackwater vehicles opened fire.

The company insists it acted "appropriately" after coming under hostile fire. But that account was disputed by Iraqi authorities, who said Blackwater employees acted recklessly and without direct provocation.

According to the Washington Post yesterday, the US military also believes Blackwater was at fault in the incident."It was obviously excessive, it was obviously wrong," an unnamed military official told the paper. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them, and none of the IP [Iraqi police] or local security forces fired back at them." The Post also reported that the first incident in Nisoor Square was followed by another minutes later, when guards on the same convoy shot into a traffic jam, killing one Iraqi and wounding two others.

The House bill – likely to be followed by a similar measure in the Senate – is opposed by the White House, a spokesman said, because it would have "unintended and intolerable consequences for crucial ... national security activities." As usual however the White House did not explain what those consequences might be.

Given the wide agreement among Democrats and Republicans about how the alleged excesses of Blackwater have undermined the US mission in Iraq, there is scant doubt it will become law, with or without an attempt by President Bush to veto it. But it will not be retroactive, meaning the Nisoor Square shootings will not be directly affected.

Even so, Sean McCormack, spokesman for the State Department for which Blackwater was working when the incident occurred, hinted for the first time this week that prosecutions could ensue. The FBI had taken over the investigation from State's own department of diplomatic security, he confirmed – partly because the probe could lead to referrals to a federal prosecution here against those responsible.

Blackwater has 1,000 staff in Iraq. It says it is "the most comprehensive professional military law enforcement, security, peace keeping and stability operations company in the world." Critics however say its employees are little more than trigger-happy mercenaries, paid far more than counterparts in the army, with a reckless disregard for the civilian populations.

Voting on the bill came just 72 hours after Eric Prince, a former US Navy special forces member who founded Blackwater a decade ago, appeared before a Congressional committee to defend the company's behaviour.