U.S. women reporting rapes in Iraq remain in limbohttp://www.iht.com/articles/2008/02/13/america/abuse.php
By James Risen
Published: February 13, 2008
WASHINGTON: Mary Kineston, an Ohio mother who went to Iraq to drive trucks, thought she had endured the worst when her supply convoy was ambushed in April 2004. After car bombs exploded and insurgents began firing on the road between Baghdad and Balad, she and other military contractors were saved only when army Black Hawk helicopters arrived.
But not long after the ambush, Kineston said, she was sexually assaulted by another driver, who remained on the job, at least temporarily, even after she reported the incident to KBR, the military contractor that employed the drivers. Later, she said she was groped by a second KBR worker. After complaining to the company about the threats and harassment endured by female employees in Iraq, she was fired.
"I felt safer on the convoys with the army than I ever did working for KBR," said Kineston, who won a modest arbitration award against KBR after returning to Ohio. "At least if you got in trouble on a convoy, you could radio the army, and they would come and help you out. But when I complained to KBR, they didn't do anything. I still have nightmares. They changed my life forever, and they got away with it."
Kineston is one of a growing number of American women who have reported that they were sexually assaulted by co-workers while employed as contractors in Iraq, but find themselves in legal limbo, unable to seek justice or even significant compensation.
With thousands of women filling jobs as contractors in the Iraq war zone, the problem of rapes and sexual assaults has increased, along with other forms of crime among contractors. Comprehensive statistics on sexual assaults among contractors are unavailable, however, because no one in the government or contracting industry is tracking them.
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Many of the same legal and logistic obstacles that have impeded other types of investigations involving contractors in Iraq - like shootings involving security guards for Blackwater Worldwide - have made it difficult for the U.S. government to pursue charges of sexual offenses against contractors in Iraq. The military justice system does not apply to them, and the reach of other U.S. laws on contractors working in foreign war zones remains unclear five years after the invasion of Iraq.
Meanwhile, KBR and other contractors have required Iraq-bound employees to sign documents agreeing to take personnel disputes to private arbitration, rather than sue the companies in American courts. The companies have repeatedly challenged arbitration claims of sexual assault or harassment brought by female employees who served in Iraq, raising fears among some women about going public with their claims. Several women who say they were sexually assaulted or raped in Iraq said they had suffered largely in silence for years.
That silence was broken in December, when Jamie Leigh Jones, a 23-year-old former employee of KBR, testified at a congressional hearing that she had been gang-raped in 2005 by co-workers in Iraq. Since her testimony, other women have begun to step forward.
Jones and her attorneys said that 38 women who worked as contractors in Iraq, Kuwait and other countries have contacted her since she testified to discuss their own experiences. Now, congressional leaders are seeking answers from the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies to try to determine the scope of the threats facing women contractors.
Court documents, interviews with women who were victims, their lawyers and other professionals, along with the limited data made available by the Bush administration, suggest that the assaults on Kineston and Jones are not isolated incidents.
The U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command has reported that it investigated 124 cases of sexual assault in Iraq over the past three years. Those figures, provided to Senator Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who has taken the lead in the Senate on the issue, include cases involving both contractors and military personnel but do not include cases involving contractors or soldiers investigated by other branches of the military.
The Diplomatic Security Service at the State Department has separately reported that it has investigated four cases of rape or sexual assault involving female contractors, including Jones's case. But the Pentagon has failed to respond to a request from Nelson for more comprehensive data, like the number of rape examinations done by military doctors in Iraq on behalf of female contractors.
What is more, the Bush administration has not offered to develop a coordinated response to the problem, aides to Nelson and other experts said.
A KBR spokeswoman, Heather Browne, said the company was intent on protecting female workers in Iraq. "KBR's commitment to the safety and security of all employees is unwavering," she said in a written statement. "One instance of sexual harassment or assault is too many and unacceptable."
When America went to war in Iraq, no one anticipated that crimes by and among civilian contractors would become such a major issue for the United States. Yet the administration's decision to rely so heavily on outside contractors - there are reportedly at least 180,000 contractors in Iraq, significantly outnumbering U.S. military personnel - made it inevitable that contractor crime would emerge as an unresolved problem as the war dragged on.
KBR, by far the largest military contractor in Iraq, says that it now has 2,383 women working in Iraq, out of a total work force there of 54,170. With a ratio of more than 20 male workers for every female in a dangerous war zone thousands of miles from home, where laws and law enforcement are at best uncertain, sex crimes would seem almost inevitable.
A shooting in Baghdad in September involving Blackwater guards that left 17 Iraqis dead highlighted the fact that the laws governing contractors remained unclear. In cases involving sexual assault, for example, soldiers and other military personnel can be prosecuted under the military justice system, but that system does not apply to contractors.
Instead, a little-used law, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, seems to be the closest law that could apply to contractors charged with rape, but its legal reach has been under wide debate since the Blackwater shootings.
Paul Brand, a Chicago psychologist who counsels contractors who have served in Iraq, said the harassment of female workers by male colleagues was common. "The extent of the harassment varies greatly from contractor to contractor, depending on how diligently they screen job candidates and management's willingness to encourage women to report problems," he said. "In many instances, very little or nothing is done."