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US-IRAQ: Heat Turns Up on Blackwater Inquiry

Khody Akhavi

WASHINGTON, Oct 10 2007 (IPS) - As with most of the controversies that have embroiled the U.S. in Iraq, the activities of the George W. Bush administration’s mercenary force remained murky and opaque. Enabled by the U.S. State Department, private security firms such as Blackwater USA seemingly occupied a state of legal limbo that allowed their guards to operate with impunity.

That all changed on Sep. 16, when a Blackwater convoy sprayed Nisour Square in Baghdad with heavy machine gun fire, killing 17 Iraqis and wounding 27 others in the process. Iraqi government officials have called the incident “deliberate murder”, contradicting the initial statement by Blackwater that stated the convoy “acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack.”

“This is a deliberate crime against civilians,” said Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday. “It should be tried in court and the victims should be compensated.”

Founded in 1998 by former Navy Seals, Blackwater markets itself as “the most comprehensive professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping, and stability operations company in the world.” It is currently the largest of the U.S. State Department’s three private security contractors, and is contracted by the U.S. to provide security services in the Iraq war.

In Washington, Blackwater and the State Department have come under the intense scrutiny of Congress.

Despite strong opposition from the White House, the House of Representatives last Thursday approved – by a vote of 389 to 30 – a bill that would bring all U.S. contractors in Iraq under the jurisdiction of U.S. criminal law.

While the House bill would have no retroactive authority over past conduct by Blackwater of other contractors, it closes a loophole that has existed since the U.S. dissolved the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in 2004.

Shortly after the occupation of Iraq in 2003, CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer III issued an edict granting immunity to U.S. military and civilian personnel from criminal prosecution in Iraqi courts.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation took over a State Department inquiry last week, dispatching a team of agents to Iraq and raising speculation that it would be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution.

Last Tuesday, Blackwater CEO and founder Erik D. Prince defended the activities of his firm before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by California Congressman Henry Waxman.

“I stress to the committee and to the American public, however, that based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately,” said Prince. “Congress should not accept these allegations as truth until it has the facts.”

But a damning report from the committee tells a different story.

“In a vast majority of the instances in which Blackwater fires shots, Blackwater is firing from a moving vehicle and does not remain at the scene to determine if the shots resulted in casualties,” according to the report prepared by committee.

“There is no evidence in the documents that the Committee has reviewed that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater’s actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting incidents involving Blackwater of the company’s high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation,” according to the report.

The report also said that the company’s guards engaged in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, firing the first shots in over 80 percent of the incidents.

Blackwater’s presence in Iraq reflects the most extensive use of private armies on the battlefield in modern history.

Blackwater USA has received more than 1 billion dollars in federal contracts since 2001, including 832 million dollars under two contracts with the State Department to provide protective services in Iraq. It charges the federal government more than 1,200 dollars per day for each security guard employed by the company, equivalent to 445,000 dollars per year, more than six times the cost of an equivalent U.S. soldier.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki government demanded on Tuesday that the U.S. sever all contracts in Iraq with Blackwater, and also called on U.S. authorities to hand over Blackwater security agents involved in the Sep. 16 shootings for possible trial in Iraqi courts, according to an Iraqi government report obtained and translated by the Associated Press.

Iraqi authorities also want the firm to pay 8 million dollars in compensation to the families of each of the 17 people killed.

In a separate incident this Tuesday, another private security contractor, Unity Resources Group, confirmed one of its security convoys was involved in a shooting that killed two women along Karada Street in the Babel neighbourhood of Baghdad.

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