Bush on troop withdrawalGiven the Iraq Government’s claim that it has withdrawn Blackwater’s “permit” to field an unaccountable mercenary force provide security services for the US government and others in Iraq, I suspect the Administration is in full panic mode behind the scenes on two fronts.

The first is in trying to figure out how to mollify the al Maliki government, even as it expands its probe beyond Blackwater into other contractors; the second is in trying to continue hiding America’s dirty big little secret that the US occupation force in Iraq is at least 20,000 to 30,000 armed “soldiers” bigger than the Administration likes to admit.

Larry Johnson at No Quarter notes that Blackwater may not even have or need a formal “permit.” That’s because the notion that the Iraqis have a sovereign government that can decide routine matters, like who has permission to kill people, is just another propaganda myth. Still, al Maliki can cause a fuss about this and make life uncomfortable for Ambassador Crocker.

Aside from the Iraqis’ understandable anger that contractors like Blackwater can kill Iraqis at will with absolutely no criminal liability, the Iraqis must surely be sending a message to the Bush Administration that they’ve had enough being blamed for every mistake Bush and Cheney have made in the invasion and occupation of their country. It’s just one more illusion stripped off an unmitigated string of illusions about how things are just peachy over there.

The internal political problem, however, is even worse for the Bush Administration. What the Blackwater episode has done is reenforce the “betrayal of the truth” [edit] theme that, thanks to Fox News and the Republicans repeating it so often, is taking hold in the public mind. And the betrayal of the whole truth here is precisely on the matters about which Crocker and Petraeus testified.

When Bush sent General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to Congress to claim the surge has been successful enough to allow us to withdraw a few troops soon and more later (but less than the original surge increase), he never asked those he hid behind to discuss the fact that there were two surges, not just one. The first surge was official US combat troops. The second surge was composed of unofficial combat forces outside the Army/Marines — the mercenaries like Blackwater that provide armed security for all the US civilian activities.

The witnesses emphasized the official US troop levels, but the reality is there has been an increase in the number of US-paid mercenaries, soldiers whose jobs are not merely to protect Crocker and his diplomatic mission, but also provide security for the substantial increase in the civilian reconstruction teams sponsored by the State Department. Those teams won’t withdraw with the surge troops; their jobs continue, because that’s where the “success” comes from. And any civilian contractors required to carry out reconstruction projects we authorized would in turn have to provide their own armed security forces, all paid for by the US.

This means we’ve have a major and continuing surge in US-paid armed forces into Iraq that are not counted as part of the “surge,” and whose tours are not limited by 12-15 months (or the Webb Amendment) that apply to the US Army. So when Petraeus told us the surge was succeeding well enough to allow small withdrawals to occur in December and more by next summer, without hurting security, he was being disingenuous — as in “betraying an obligation to tell the whole truth.”

Petraeus, Crocker and Bush all knew the surge in armed, US-paid mercenaries would not decline, and would probably increase, because in order to retain the “gains” that allow the reconstruction efforts to continue, we’ll have to at least keep and probably increase the numbers of heavily armed security forces like Blackwater. As the US Army stands down, Blackwater stands up.

And the risks of more Blackwater “incidents” will increase. While we withdraw official troops that are accountable to the military, military discipline and military justice, we will probably increase Blackwater-type “troops” who are completely unaccountable for their actions against Iraqis, but still rightly seen by Iraqis as part of the US occupation.

While Congress is thinking about “funding the troops,” it might give some thought to finding out where the funding is for Blackwater and similar groups. Is it hidden in the Defense Appropriations Bill? In the State Department budget? In the Supplementals? And the next time we talk about the “surge” and “withdrawals,” how about counting all the troops and making then all equally accountable? Because if I were in the Army, and I truly believed my efforts have helped improve “security” in Iraq, I’d feel betrayed if a bunch of yahoos at Blackwater threw it all away.

More on Blackwater history.

Update: While contractors working for and accompanying the US Military now appear to be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, those working for other US government agencies do not appear to be covered. Is there a loophole? (h/t Peterr).

Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite