Flexing Muscle, Baghdad Detains U.S. Contractors

by MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT and ERIC SCHMITT
January 15, 2012

BAGHDAD — Iraqi authorities have detained a few hundred foreign contractors in recent weeks, industry officials say, including many Americans who work for the United States Embassy, in one of the first major signs of the Iraqi government’s asserting its sovereignty after the American 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 United States military and to claim areas of the country it had controlled. In the final weeks of the military withdrawal, the son of Iraq’s prime minister began evicting Western companies and contractors from the heavily fortified Green Zone, which had been the heart of the United States military operation for much of the war.

Just after the last American 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 for 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, 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; American officials acknowledged the detainments but would not put a number on them.

Private contractors are integral to postwar Iraq’s economic development and security, foreign businessmen and American officials say, but they remain a powerful symbol of American 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 Baghdad’s Nisour Square when military contractors for Blackwater killed 17 civilians.

Iraq’s 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 United States 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 here.

“While private organizations are often able to resolve low-level disputes and irregularities, this issue is beyond our ability to resolve,” the International Stability Operations Association, a Washington-based group that represents more than 50 companies and aid organizations that work in conflict, post-conflict and disaster relief zones, said in a letter on Sunday to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Doug Brooks, president of the organization, said in a telephone interview that the number of civilian contractors who have been detained was in the “low hundreds.” He added in an e-mail on Sunday, “Everyone is impacted, but the roots have more to do with political infighting than any hostility to the U.S.”

As Iraqi and American officials were negotiating last summer to keep American troops in Iraq into 2012, the Iraqis refused to grant American troops immunity from Iraqi law, in large part because of violent episodes like the one in Nisour Square. Although the contractors working for the embassy are doing many of the same jobs American troops had, including training, logistics, maintenance and private security, they are not protected from Iraqi law.

Mr. Rashid, the adviser to Mr. Talabani, said Iraqis are fed up with foreign contractors. “The Iraqi public is not happy with security contractors. They caused a lot of pain,” he said. “There is a general bad feeling towards the security contractors among the Iraqis and that has created bad feelings towards them all.”

Mr. Rashid said that traveling to the United States to work was no different. “Every time I go to the airport in New York they open my suitcase three times,” he said. “How long does it take to get an American visa?”

An adviser to Mr. Maliki said that as part of the current agreement between the United States and Iraq, no Americans should be in the country without the permission of the Iraqi government.

“Iraq always welcomes foreigners into the country, but they have to come through legally and in a way that respects that Iraq now has sovereignty and control over its land,” said the adviser, Ali Moussawi.

Last month, two Americans, a Fijian and 12 Iraqis employed by Triple Canopy, a private security company, were detained for 18 days after their 10-vehicle convoy from Kalsu, south of Baghdad, to Taji, north of the capital, was stopped for what Iraqi officials said was improper paperwork.

One of the Americans, Alex Antiohos, 32, a former Army Green Beret medic from North Babylon, N.Y., who served in the Iraq war, said in a telephone interview Sunday that he and his colleagues were kept at an Iraqi army camp, fed insect-infested plates of rice and fish, forced to sleep in a former jail, and though not physically mistreated were verbally threatened by an Iraqi general who visited them periodically. “At times, I feared for my safety,” Mr. Antiohos said.

In a statement, Triple Canopy, which denied any problems with documents, said that during the detention period, company officials were in contact with employees by cellphone, and brought them food, blankets, clothing, medical supplies and cellphone batteries. All were released unharmed on Dec. 27.

The detention drew the ire of Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who heads the House Homeland Security Committee. His office was contacted by Mr. Antiohos’s wife on Dec. 19 seeking help to get the employees released. Mr. King criticized the United States Embassy in Baghdad for failing to help release the contractors caught in a drama that he said might have resulted in part from rival Iraqi ministries’ battling for political primacy.

“They could have been held as power plays by one Iraq department against another, but what adds to the problem is that it does not appear that the State Department is doing anything near what they could be doing,” Mr. King said in a telephone interview.

The United States Embassy in Baghdad, as well as senior State Department and military officials, say that no Americans are currently being detained, and they insist the detentions and visa delays are more the result of bureaucratic inexperience than malevolent intentions.

“The embassy has pushed for consistency and transparency in the government of Iraq’s immigration and customs procedures and urged American citizens to review their travel documents to ensure that they comply with Iraqi requirements to help avoid such incidents,” an Embassy spokesman said in a statement.

One senior American military official said that the current disconnect between the Iraqis and the contractors was “primarily an adjustment of our standard operating procedures as we adapt our people and they adapt their security forces to the new situation.”

Michael S. Schmidt reported from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.