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More questions on Blackwater

Private security has hurt the US image in Iraq, said a new House report.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 2007


New revelations about shootings in Iraq involving the security contractor Blackwater USA have intensified debate in Washington about the wisdom of the US government's reliance on private firms to perform quasi-military functions.

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Contractors do so many jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan that at this point the US military cannot carry out basic operations without them, say some experts. Personnel from private firms help run Patriot missile batteries, for instance. They load B-2 bombers, as well as protect US diplomats and visiting members of Congress.

Yet among Iraqi civilians, private guards in particular may have become one of the most disliked symbols of the US presence in the country. Their perceived excesses may undermine US efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people – a key aspect of any counterinsurgency effort.

"The use of contractors appears to be hampering efforts to actually win the counterinsurgency campaign [in Iraq] on multiple levels," writes Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a just-published report on the subject.

At an Oct. 2 hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Blackwater USA chief executive Erik Prince vehemently defended his firm's record in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The parts of the world Blackwater operates in are particularly dangerous, said Mr. Prince. Yet no person under the company's protection has been killed or severely injured.

US government outsourcing of bodyguard and protective functions to firms such as his is an effective marshaling of resources, said Prince.

"By doing so, more American soldiers are available to fight the enemy," he said.

Per request from the US Department of Justice, neither Prince nor House lawmakers specifically discussed the Sept. 16 incident in which Blackwater employees were involved in a shooting in a Baghdad square in which at least eight civilians were killed. On Monday, the FBI announced that it has opened in investigation of the incident.

The Blackwater executive did tell the House panel that in 2006 his firm carried out some 6,500 protective missions in Iraq. In only 56 of those – less than 1 percent – did Blackwater guards fire their weapons, he said.

"To the extent that there is any loss of innocent life ever [in Iraq], let me express that is tragic," he said.

A new report from the House Oversight panel was critical of Blackwater actions, however. It described a number of questionable incidents involving firm personnel, which previously had not been reported. Among them:

On Oct. 25, 2005, Blackwater USA security personnel guarding a US motorcade in Mosul shot at a vehicle that appeared to be turning into their path. A bullet passed through the car and struck a civilian bystander, who fell to the ground, severely wounded. The convoy continued on – though Blackwater reported the shooting and an ambulance was sent to the scene.

On Sept. 24, 2006, a Blackwater protection team drove up the wrong side of a road in Al-Hillah at 45 miles per hour – a common security practice. The driver of an oncoming Opal lost control while swerving out of their way and slammed into a phone pole. The car burst into flames. The Blackwater convoy left the scene without helping the burning auto's occupants.

On Nov. 28, 2005, a Blackwater motorcade traveling to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil in Baghdad collided with a total of 18 vehicles during its round trip. Statements about this episode made by team members in its immediate aftermath later were found by Blackwater officials to be "at best, dishonest reporting."