Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Iraq Detains Foreign Contractors

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Iraq Detains Foreign Contractors

Article excerpt

The crackdown comes amid other moves by the Iraqi government to take over functions once performed by the U.S. military and to claim areas of the country it had controlled.

The Iraqi authorities have detained a few hundred foreign contractors in recent weeks, industry officials say, including many Americans who work for the U.S. Embassy, in one of the first major signs of the Iraqi government's asserting its sovereignty after the U.S. troop withdrawal last month.

The detentions have occurred largely at the airport in Baghdad and at checkpoints around the capital after the Iraqi authorities raised questions about the contractors' documents, including visas, weapons permits and authorizations to drive certain routes. Although no formal charges have been filed, the detentions have lasted from a few hours to nearly three weeks.

The crackdown comes amid other moves by the Iraqi government to take over functions that had been performed by the U.S. military and to claim areas of the country it had controlled. In the final weeks of the military withdrawal, the son of the Iraqi prime minister began evicting Western companies and contractors from the heavily fortified Green Zone, which had been the heart of the U.S. military operation for much of the war.

Just after the last U.S. troops left in December, the Iraqis stopped issuing and renewing many weapons licenses and other authorizations. The restrictions created a sequence of events in which contractors were being detained over having expired documents that the government would not renew.

The Iraqi authorities have also imposed new limitations on visas. In some recent cases, contractors have been told they have 10 days to leave Iraq or face arrest in what some industry officials call a form of controlled harassment.

Latif Rashid, a senior adviser to the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, and a former minister of water, said in an interview that the Iraqis' deep mistrust of security contractors had led the government to strictly monitor them. "We have to apply our own rules now," he said.

This month, the Iraqi authorities kept scores of contractors penned up at Baghdad's international airport for nearly a week until their visa disputes were resolved. Industry officials said more than 100 foreigners were detained; U.S. officials acknowledged the detentions but would not put a number on them.

Private contractors are integral to postwar Iraq's economic development and security, foreign businessmen and U.S. officials say, but they remain a powerful symbol of U.S. might, with some Iraqis accusing them of running roughshod over the country.

An image of contractors as trigger-happy mercenaries who were above the law was seared into the minds of Iraqis after several violent episodes involving private sector workers, chief among them the 2007 shooting in Nisour Square in Baghdad when military contractors for Blackwater killed 17 civilians.

The Iraqi oil sector alone, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the government's budget, relies heavily on tens of thousands of foreign employees. The U.S. Embassy employs 5,000 contractors to protect its 11,000 employees and to train the Iraqi military to operate tanks, helicopters and weapons systems that the United States has sold them.

The United States had been providing much of the accreditation for contractors to work in Iraq. But after the military withdrawal, contractors had to deal with a Iraqi bureaucracy at a time when the government was engulfed in a political crisis and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, fearing a coup, was moving tanks into the Green Zone.

The delays for visa approvals have disrupted the daily movement of supplies and personnel around Iraq, prompting formal protests from dozens of companies operating in Iraq. And they have raised deeper questions about how the Maliki government intends to treat foreign workers and how willing foreign companies will be to invest in Iraq. …

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