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US mercenary outfit shoots 11 Iraqis - and self in foot

Is outsourcing military force the wave of the future?

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The Cheney administration's lust for outsourcing work formerly performed by the government - and for favored contractors to profit handsomely thereby - is well-known and insatiable.

But one of those pampered contracting firms is now in a bit of hot water, the AP reports.

Lust, of course, can be blinding. Those favored contractors have operated till now in a legal twilight - never truly accountable under either American or Iraqi law. That twilight might soon see a bit more sunshine, however, as the government of Iraq has threatened to strip controversial American security contractor Blackwater of its right to operate in the troubled country.

The American government is now scrambling to undo this unexpected assertion of Iraqi sovereignty.

The use of mercenaries is not necessarily evil. It is without a doubt one of the oldest professions - not that that makes it a respectable one. The outsourcing of military affairs in Iraq, however, raises awkward ethical issues due to its breadth and sheer scope. There are currently about as many contractors as there are American soldiers, and they are frequently performing roles that in past wars were filled by regular military.

However, the Sunday killing of 11 Iraqis by Blackwater security contractors appears to be the final straw for the Iraqi government, as it seeks to establish some kind of control over contractors who have grown accustomed to behaving with impunity. In one noteworthy incident last Christmas Eve, a drunk Blackwater contractor gunned down a bodyguard of an Iraqi Vice President, and then found refuge from Iraqi justice in the warm confines of the American Embassy.

Many are bothered by the use of mercenaries, viewing the use of the military force as inherently intertwined with national sovereignty, and therefore not for sale. Setting that argument aside, however, the outsourcing of government functions to private contractors removes virtually any accountability to the public, and provides increased opportunity for graft, fraud and corruption, rather than less, as the reports of epic corruption associated with the Iraq occupation reveal.

Others are troubled by the fact that private military security personnel make ten times what a ground-pounding GI makes, and therefore question whether or not it's any more efficient to outsource at all - if outsourcing is only a means of funneling tax dollars to politically well-connected corporations, why would it be? The Cheney administration beats the free-market drum whenever it can be useful as propaganda, but the use of private contractors in Iraq has been neither efficient nor competitive, nor do the contractors involved want it to be.

If the Iraqis truly show some spine and tell Blackwater to get lost, well, good for them.®

Burke Hansen, attorney at large, heads a San Francisco law office

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