Trump’s forgiving of the Blackwater shooters is unforgivable, particularly for Iraqis.
President Trump, in his final days of office, pardoned four American private contractors who took part in the Blackwater shooting, responsible for the deaths of 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007. Trump’s actions have resulted in indignation and outrage in Iraq.
The event has been deemed Iraq’s “Bloody Sunday” and My Lai massacre, not by Iraqis, but Americans, situating the deaths in Iraq with similar atrocities committed by UK and US military forces in Ireland and Vietnam respectively.
The invocation of the British and American precedents is apt in the Iraqi case because the US deployment of private security contractors or mercenaries in Iraq after the 2003 invasion resonates with the UK’s use of similar military units during the 1920s.
While Trump’s pardon is the culmination of a series of acts that represent his disregard for Iraq’s sovereignty, for Iraqis his actions resonate with a century-long history of Western coercion in the nation’s domestic affairs.
Both the US and UK deprived Iraq of the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within its own borders, by not only deploying their armies as occupying forces but privatising violence as well, employing mercenaries as colonial police forces.
The British Precedent
When Britain ruled Iraq as a post-World War I mandate it recruited the Assyrian Levies among the area’s Christians as a facilities protection force, guarding the homes of the UK High Commissioner and Royal Air Force bases.
The American firm Blackwater was also tasked with serving as a facility protection forces, as well as serving as the bodyguards of diplomats and officials. Local protection forces also emerged amongst the Iraqis in 2003, such as those paid to protect the nation’s hydrocarbons infrastructure or private Kurdish protection companies.
Collectively, their emergence was a testament to the privatisation and capitalisation of violence because the US occupying forces failed to provide security on the ground after the invasion.
The Assyrian Levies represented a typical tactic of colonial divide-and-rule. Both Britain and France recruited minorities in their colonies and mandates to serve as supplemental police forces.
However, unlike a group like Blackwater, the Assyrian Levies remained in Iraq as it was their home.
What unites the British experience of the 1920s and the US deployment of Blackwater is the resentment created amongst the Iraqi public, even after these private security forces were disbanded or withdrawn.
The Levies disbanded after 1932, Iraq’s independence, and upon decommissioning, each Levy was given a rifle and ammunition for self-protection in their homes which proved to be a source of resentment amongst Iraqis.
When the Iraqi Army sought to disarm these forces in 1933, a relatively minor skirmish led to the massacre of 300 Assyrian civilians in the village of Summayl.
This incident occurred just a year after Iraq’s independence, and minorities also found themselves vulnerable during Iraq’s post-2003 state-building process. Since 2003 minorities have sought to arm themselves, with Christians after the ISIS (Daesh) invasion creating their own militias, such as Iraq’s Assyrian Christian militia Dwekh Nawsha, which fought alongside Iraqi Shia militias.
Thus, Trump’s actions are not just an insult to the memories of the 14 slain civilians, but resonate with Iraq’s history, whose 100-year anniversary of the formation of their state approaches in the year 2021.
By comparing the Levies to Blackwater I am not equating the two as the same, but rather demonstrating that the British and American use of these private forces were seen by Iraqis after 1920 and 2003 as a violation of state sovereignty and a dilution of the power of the new Iraqi military.
The perpetrators in both cases were not subject to Iraqi law, as a result of an order issued from the American occupation authority as of 2003.
This poisoned legacy is one of the reasons why the Iraqi and the US government failed to achieve a status of forces agreement as of 2011, where a residual American military presence would be maintained for security purposes, ultimately aiding in the rise of Daesh.
Trump’s pardon was also situated in the greater network of patronage and nepotism that characterises his administration. He pardoned those found guilty of colluding with Russia during the Mueller investigation and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner’s father. Blackwater was originally founded by Erik Prince, whose sister, Betsy DeVos, was Trump’s education secretary.
It has been said Trump would do everything in his power to poison the resumption of an American-Iranian rapprochement under the Biden administration, including possibly giving the “green light” for the assassination of an official affiliated with Iran’s nuclear program. It seems Trump is also doing everything in his power to undermine American-Iraqi relations as well.
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