With the armed security force Blackwater USA and other private contractors in Iraq facing tighter scrutiny, the House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would bring all U.S. government contractors in the Iraq war zone under the jurisdiction of U.S criminal law. The measure would a require the FBI to investigate any allegations of wrongdoing.
The bill was approved by a 389-30 vote, despite strong opposition from the White House. It came as lawmakers and human rights groups are using a Sept. 16 shooting by Blackwater personnel in Baghdad to highlight the many contractors operating in Iraq who have apparently been unaccountable to U.S. military or civilian laws and outside the reach of the Iraqi judicial system.
The State Department, which had been leading the investigation into the shooting, said Thursday that a team of FBI agents sent to Baghdad in recent days had taken over the inquiry. No charges have been filed in the case, and Justice Department officials have said it was unclear whether U.S. law would apply. Even if enacted, the House bill would have no retroactive authority over past conduct by Blackwater or other contractors.
Shortly after the occupation of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, issued a decree granting immunity to U.S. military and civilian personnel from prosecution for crimes in Iraqi courts.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., expands a law that in 2000 brought defense contractors working with U.S. troops overseas under jurisdiction of U.S. criminal law. That law has rarely been used and might not apply to firms like Blackwater, which was hired by the State Department to guard diplomats and could argue that its work is not tied directly to war operations.
But Republican critics, who said they supported the overall goal of increasing accountability for contractors, said there were weaknesses in the legislation, including imprecise descriptions about the locations where the law would apply. They also said the FBI was not equipped to conduct numerous investigations overseas and that the effort would prove costly.
Price has been working on the contractor issue for about three years and first introduced his bill in January. A similar measure was submitted in the Senate by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. On Thursday, Obama introduced an updated version.
The FBI maintains a sizable office in Iraq, staffed by dozens of special agents and other investigators, many of them specialists in counterterrorism. But law enforcement officials said the Blackwater inquiry would be left to the visiting agents.
The officials said the FBI had received no specific accusations of criminality from the State Department in opening the Blackwater investigation, which is expected to focus on Blackwater operatives who are accused of involvement in the deaths of Iraqi civilians or other violent acts. But even if the agents determine that crimes took place, it could prove extremely difficult to prosecute the accused under U.S. civilian or military laws.