Iraq takes step toward lifting U.S. contractors' immunity

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi Cabinet approved legislation Tuesday that would revoke a U.S. decree giving immunity from Iraqi laws to private security contractors, the Iraqi government's first step toward asserting its authority over the foreign companies that provide protection for American diplomats.

The legislation was in response to Iraqis' anger over the shooting Sept. 16 of 17 Iraqis by security guards for Blackwater USA. Blackwater said the shooting was in response to an ambush, but witnesses said they saw no one open fire at the convoy and Iraqi government officials have called the shooting unprovoked.

The legislation, which the parliament also must approve, would revoke Order 17, which was issued by L. Paul Bremer, who was the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority before the CPA dissolved in June 2004 and authority passed to an Iraqi government. The order exempted private security contractors from liability under Iraqi law.

Under the legislation, security contractors working in Iraq would have to register their firearms and equipment with the Ministry of Interior. Foreigners working for the security companies would have to apply through the Foreign Ministry for visas to work in Iraq.

The parliament is expected to pass the legislation, although some members are promising a debate over whether to strengthen the measure. Once the parliament passes its version of the law, it will be presented to the Presidency Council. If that council — made up of the president and his two deputies — approves it, it will be law.

Several contractors object to the legislation, saying they don't trust Iraq's judicial process, which so far has been ineffective and inconsistent. Contractors have said that such legislation effectively would force them out of the country.

Contractors who violate Iraqi law could lose their licenses to work here; those found to have harmed Iraqis could face criminal prosecution.

Contractors have become a key part of U.S. operations in Iraq, doing everything from cooking and cleaning to guarding diplomats and military installations. Estimates indicate that there are as many private contactors as there are American troops in Iraq.

Security contractors have been particularly controversial. Iraqis and some U.S. military officials have complained that the contractors show little regard for civilians and aggravate tensions between the military and residents, who often don't differentiate between contractors and soldiers.

Only contractors working for the Department of Defense can be held legally liable for their actions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Blackwater guards involved in the Sept. 16 incident were working for the State Department. While the FBI is investigating the incident, it's unclear what, if any, U.S. law would apply to their actions.

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