When Gen. Petraeus faced down Congressional questioners last week, few of his interlocutors were impolite enough to ask about what I have called the "rent-a-soldier surge": the some 180,000 private contractors, many of them heavily armed, now serving in Iraq at the pleasure of President Bush, on the dime of the U.S. public.

To put their number in perspective, note that the number of official U.S. soldiers in Iraq now stands at 160,000 (of whom President Bush has magnanimously proposed bringing home 5,700). In Bush’s father’s Gulf War, official soldiers outnumbered mercenaries 60 to 1, according to Jeremy Scahill, who has been doggedly documenting the mercenary trend for years now.

On Monday, the Iraqi government revoked the license of the most infamous mercenary band operating in Baghdad: Blackwater, a group run by the wealthy heir and Bush crony Erik Prince. The government moved after Blackwater rent-a-soldiers protecting U.S. State Department officials killed eight Iraqi civilians during an "incident" in Baghdad.

It will be fascinating to see how the controversy plays out. Will Bush allow the Iraqis to oust Blackwater? The firm owns the contract for escorting U.S. officials through the streets of Baghdad — where, four years into the occupation, they still can’t move through the street without a huge security detail.

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As portrayed by an article ($ub. req’d) in today’s Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials seem to be taking a cross-our-fingers-hope-for-the-best attitude:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki late Monday and the two agreed to conduct a fair and transparent investigation. The U.S. clearly hoped the Iraqis would be satisfied with an investigation, a finding of responsibility and compensation to the victims’ families — and not insist on expelling a company that the Americans cannot operate here without.

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Wow: "a company that the Americans cannot operate here without."

Earlier this year, Time chronicled Blackwater’s rise to such prominence:

In 2003, Blackwater landed its first truly high-profile contract: guarding Ambassador L. Paul Bremer in Iraq, at the cost of $21 million in 11 months. Since June 2004, Blackwater has been paid more than $320 million out of a $1 billion, five-year State Department budget for the Worldwide Personal Protective Service, which protects U.S. officials and some foreign officials in conflict zones.

And here’s Time on Blackwater chief Prince’s coziness with the Bushes:

Prince’s political connections may well have helped his company win these crucial contracts from the Bush Administration. He was a White House intern under George W. Bush’s father. His family have long been G.O.P donors; his sister Betsy Prince DeVos chaired the Michigan Republican Party from 1996 to 2000 and from 2003 to 2005. And Blackwater has hired U.S. national-security vets onto its executive staff. Among them: Cofer Black, the onetime head of counterterrorism at the CIA, and Joseph Schmitz, a former Pentagon inspector general whose duties included investigating contractual agreements with firms like Blackwater.

Meanwhile, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who may well be the most powerful man in Iraq after Gen. Petraeus, is calling on the government to ban all private mercenaries, according to the above-linked Journal piece.

And Iraqi officials have vowed to try the Blackwater employees involved with the killings in court. That might not go over so well in the White House. Reports the excellent McClatchy news service:

In 2003, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority exempted the [mercenary] companies and their employees from prosecution under Iraqi law. But Iraqi officials disputed whether that exemption remains in effect, and U.S. officials declined to comment.

Seems like we’ve reached a test of the real level of Iraqi sovereignty. And, I hope, the occasion for debate on the true level of U.S. armed forces operating in Iraq.

And for those searching in dismay for an environmental aspect to this post, I defer to no less a source than former Fed chair Alan Greenspan. "I’m saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows — the Iraq war is largely about oil," he writes in his new book.