There was outrage in Iraq and around the world when employees of the American private security contractor Blackwater killed 17 Iraqis in a bloody shootout in Baghdad on Sept. 16. Now that outrage has increased after the Associated Press reported on Monday that the US State Department has offered limited immunity to the security guards involved in the incident in return for information about the killings.
Although the immunity does not preclude prosecution, experts believe it would hamper any court case and make convictions unlikely. Prosecutors would have to prove they did not use information from the bodyguards' statements when seeking criminal charges.
Democrats in Washington criticized the Bush administration Tuesday over the immunity offer. In a letter to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama demanded to know if the FBI and Justice Department were consulted before immunity was offered.
State Department officials admitted Tuesday that limited immunity had been routinely offered to private security contractors involved in shootings in Iraq, but denied that such guarantees would jeopardize prosecution of the Blackwater guards involved in the Sept. 16 incident. "It's up to the investigators and prosecutors to determine what kind of case they have ... and ultimately whether to bring prosecution," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
Meanwhile the Iraq government approved a draft law Tuesday which will lift immunity for foreign security contractors operating in the country. The law would overturn a decree that granted immunity to such firms that was imposed by US authorities in the wake of the 2003 invasion. However the new law would not be retroactive, meaning that the guards involved in the Sept. 16 incident could still not be prosecuted in Iraq.
The draft law is expected to be passed by an overwhelming parliamentary majority and is likely to increase tensions between the US and Iraqi governments. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised to push through the law in response to public outrage about the killing of the 17 Iraqis. The Iraqi government wants to prosecute the Blackwater guards, which it claims "deliberately killed" the civilians, but Blackwater insists its employees acted lawfully.
Commentators writing in Germany's newspapers Wednesday were critical of the immunity offer and warned of the consequences for Rice.
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Mistakes in Iraq are always also the mistakes of the minister in question. The blame can be transferred very quickly, and it looks like Blackwater could turn out to be a big problem for Condoleezza Rice."
"State Department investigators promised immunity to guards of the private security firm Blackwater, so that the guards would testify about the Sept. 16 incident ... . That amounts to destroying evidence, according to the American definition of the term. The US Congress can be very difficult when its detects a violation of US law -- especially in a pre-election year. And especially when a minister who is a close confidant of George W. Bush is involved."
"One thing is clear: If there is the slightest evidence that the secretary of state's office had anything to do with (the immunity offer), then Condoleezza Rice will be in for a rough ride in the house."
"Congress sees a new chance to finally make a member of Bush's cabinet take responsibility for the highly controversial war. The secretary of state is on thin ice. If a single written piece of evidence is found in her office, she will come to rue the day she heard the name Blackwater."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"It's true that other Western governments also employ contractors, but only the US government has allowed private security firms to develop into an omnipresent, uncontrollable apparatus in the war zones of this world."
"It is clear why the war-drunk government of US President George W. Bush hopes to be able to perform better in the short term with the help of Blackwater and similar firms. What is impossible to understand, however, is that Congress, whose primary task is to control this government, is only now realizing how the immunity trickery by the State Department and the Department of Defense has tied its hands."
"Only political will can now prevent Blackwater and company from becoming uncontrollable forces that sow hatred wherever they operate. Congress would be well advised to work together with the United Nations to find a quick solution under international law."
-- David Gordon Smith, 11:30 a.m. CET