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October 7, 2007

Concerning US private security firm Blackwater’s black deeds in occupied Iraq


October 7, 2007

After the killing of as many as 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in a crowded square in central Baghdad on September 16 by guards working for Blackwater, the US private security contractor that provides heavily armed security for American diplomats serving in US-occupied Baghdad, the US State Department on Friday issued new guidelines to rein in and monitor the trigger-happy firm.

Blackwater has been involved in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, according to a US Congress report that described the company’s employees as dangerously out of control.

Blackwater has a reputation for being quick on the draw. Since 2005, the North Carolina-based company, which has about 1,000 employees in Iraq, has reported 195 “escalation of force incidents”; in 156 of these cases Blackwater guns fired first. According to the New York Times, Blackwater guards were twice as likely as employees of two other firms protecting State Department personnel in Iraq to be involved in shooting incidents.

On Tuesday morning, Representative Henry Waxman (Democrat-California), chairman of the US House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reforms Committee, held a hearing on the US military’s use of private contractors.

When Waxman announced plans for the hearing the previous week, the State Department directed Blackwater not to give any information or testimony, without written permission from the department.

After a public argument between Waxman and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, the State Department relented. Blackwater CEO and founder Erik Prince, who has close ties to the Bush administration, testified before Waxman’s committee on Tuesday.

But the attempt to shield Prince was apparently not the first time that the State Department had protected Blackwater. A report issued by Waxman on Monday said that the State Department helped Blackwater cover up Iraqi fatalities. According to the report, in December 2006, the

State Department arranged for the company to pay $ 15,000 to the family of an Iraqi guard who was shot and killed by a drunken Blackwater employee. In another shooting death, the payment was $ 5,000.

According to a CNN report, the State Department also allowed a Blackwater employee to write the State Department’s initial “spot report” on the September 16 shooting incident. The “spot report” did not mention civilian casualties and claimed that Blackwater’s guards were “responding to an insurgent attack” on a State Department convoy. But eyewitnesses and Iraqi officials gave a very different account of the incident, saying that the shooting by Blackwater guards was unprovoked.

Blackwater has sacked 122 of its armed guards in Iraq since it started protecting US diplomats there nearly three years ago, US congressional investigators said on October 1.

The firings, most frequently for weapons-related matters, amount to more than one-eighth of Blackwater’s current workforce in Iraq. None of the people fired has been subjected to legal proceedings or other sanctions, the congressional investigators found. The disclosures came in a 15-page memorandum about the investigation by aides to Representative Waxman.

Waxman’s committee said that the allegations against Blackwater are backed by thousands of documents. The documents depict a security enterprise that almost routinely opens fire in Iraq’s streets, occasionally attempts to cover up its transgressions and frequently is protected from censure and prosecution by US State Department overseers.

The memorandum describes instances in which Blackwater guards eagerly rush to battles involving US soldiers, plough their armoured trucks into civilian vehicles for no apparent reason, and leave scenes of violence without assisting wounded civilians. The memo said State Department officials ignored misconduct by Balckwater or – in at least one high-profile instance – were directly involved in making sure a Blackwater employee accused of killing an Iraqi guard while intoxicated was flown out of the country less than 36 hours after the shooting.

Blackwater is the largest private security firm operating in occupied Iraq and has been paid more than a billion dollars in US government contracts since President George W. Bush took office. The firm is involved in a host of controversies over the conduct of its guards that have prompted some Iraqis, including officials of Ministry of Interior, to demand its expulsion from Iraq.

Blackwater’s 38-year-old founder and chairman Erik Prince, a former US Navy SEAL (commando), has close ties with the Bush administration and prominent members of the ruling Republican Party. Prince and his first and second wives have donated roughly $ 300,000 to Republican candidates and political action committees.

During his college days, Prince interned in George H. W. Bush’s White House and also for Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican. Betsy Prince, Erik Prince’s sister, married into the DeVos family, one of America’s biggest donors to Republican and conservative causes. Press reports said that between July 2003 and July 2006, the DeVos family’s foundation gave at least $ 670,000 to the Family Research Council, one of the right-wing Christian groups that is most influential with President George W. Bush’s administration. The foundation gave $ 531,000 to Focus on the Family, another conservative NGO.

Press reports said that Joseph Schmitz, Blackwater’s chief operating officer and general counsel, also had close links to George W. Bush’s administration. In 2002, President Bush nominated Schmitz to oversee and police the Pentagon’s military contracts as the Defence Department’s inspector-general.

J. Cofer Black, Blackwater’s vice-chairman, worked for the CIA for 28 years, running covert operations in the spy agency’s Directorate of Operations. He later worked for the State Department before joining Blackwater in 2004.

According to the Washington Post, Black’s work on Afghanistan presentations earned him “special access” to the George W. Bush White House.

Critics say that these ties to the Bush administration have enabled Blackwater to increase its annual federal contracts from less than $ 1 million in 2001 to over $ 1 billion in 2007. That’s a 100,000 per cent increase in six years, or an average increase of 16,666 per cent a year. An increase of that magnitude must make Blackwater the fastest-growing company in the world.

Last week’s report by Waxman’s congressional committee labeled Blackwater an out-of-control outfit indifferent to Iraqi civilian casualties.

But if Blackwater is indifferent to Iraqi civilian casualties, so are the Bush administration and the US military. US military spokesman have said on many occasions that the US doesn’t keep a count of the Iraqis killed by US forces – as if only American deaths matter. According to a study conducted by the respected British medical journal The Lancet and published in its issue of October 2006, more than 600,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed by US forces since the invasion began

The US military disputes this figure, claiming that it is “highly exaggerated.” But how does it know this when, by its own admission, it doesn’t keep a count of the Iraqis killed?

Under orders issued by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, video cameras will now be mounted in Blackwater vehicles and American federal agents will ride with the security contractors who escort US diplomatic convoys.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Friday that the reforms were aimed at “putting in place more robust assets to make sure that the management, reporting and accountability function works as best as it possibly can.”

McCormack said the State Department will also deploy dozens on in-house Diplomatic Security agents to accompany Blackwater guards.

The measures, which also include recording radio traffic between the US embassy in Baghdad and diplomatic convoys and improving communications between those vehicles and US military units in the vicinity, were implemented amid intense congressional criticism of the State Department’s security practices in Iraq and Blackwater’s role.

The measures announced on Friday were approved by Rice on the initial recommendations of Patrick F. Kennedy, the State Department’s director of management policy. McCormack said Kennedy is the leader of a team Rice appointed to look at the way Blackwater and other private security contractors operate in Iraq.

The New York Times reported that Kennedy had originally selected Blackwater to provide security for top American civilian officials in Baghdad, when he served as chief of staff to L. Paul Bremmer III, the administrator of the US occupation authority in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. “That mission grew into a $ 1.2 billion multiyear security contract with the State Department for the company,” the paper reported.

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