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Blackwater shot first in 80 percent of Iraq firefights, report finds
Nick Juliano
Published: Tuesday October 2, 2007

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Hired guards were involved in more than one shooting per week

Private guns-for-hire from Blackwater USA fired their weapons nearly 200 times while working in Iraq, and in four-of-five incidents the security contractors fired the first shots, according to a new Democratic-sponsored congressional report.

Blackwater is facing increased scrutiny since a Sept. 16 incident in which the company's security personnel killed between 11 and 20 Iraqi citizens during an incident in which Iraqi investigators say the private contractors were unprovoked before opening fire on the crowd.

The Democratic staff of the House Oversight Committee released a 15-page report Monday that examined Blackwater's actions in Iraq based on incident reports compiled by the company and other government documents.

The report found that since 2005 Blackwater guards were involved in 195 "escalation of force" incidents in Iraq during which they fired their weapons, an average of 1.4 per week. In more than 80 percent of those cases Blackwater guards fired first, according to the report, in an apparent violation of the company's mandate allowing only defensive fire to prevent "imminent and grave danger."

"In practice, however, the vast majority of Blackwater weapons discharges are preemptive, with Blackwater forces firing first at a vehicle or suspicious individual prior to receiving any fire," the report notes.

Blackwater has received more than $832 million in contracts from the State Department to guard diplomats and embassy officials in Baghdad, but the new report reveals that State has done little to reign in or punish rogue contractors.

"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 or the company's high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation," the Democratic staffers write.

At a hearing Tuesday, Blackwater owner Erick Prince will testify along with several State Department officials at an Oversight Committee hearing investigating the Sept. 16 shooting along with other incidents unearthed by the committee. Several Republicans requested a delay in the hearings until internal State Department investigations conclude. The FBI says it is beginning its own investigation into the shooting as well.

The controversy apparently has not eliminated Blackwater's ability to secure government contracts. On Friday, the Pentagon announced that a Blackwater subsidiary, Presidential Airways Inc., would receive a $92 million contract for air transportation services in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

Monday's report shows that the State Department not only didn't seek criminal repercussions against rogue guards, in at least one instance the US government acted in concert with Blackwater to help an employee return stateside after he had killed an Iraqi guard.

"Even in cases involving the death of Iraqis, it appears that the State Department's primary response was to ask Blackwater to make monetary payments to 'put the matter behind us,'" the report says. "The most serious consequence faced by Blackwater personnel for misconduct appears to be termination of their employment."

During the company's time in Iraq, it has fired 122 contractors for problems ranging from violent behavior, to alcohol abuse, to inappropriate use of weapons, according to the report.

The Oversight report pointed to a shooting on Christmas Eve last year in which an apparently drunk Blackwater contractor shot and killed a security guard to Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's top aide called the incident "murder," and last month's shooting rekindled Iraqis' anger over the Dec. 24, 2006 event.

Blackwater fired the contractor and arranged to have him evacuated from the country; two days later he flew from Baghdad to Jordan, where he returned to the US with the "authority of the DOS [Department of State] Regional Security Officer," according to the report. US Embassy officials worked with Blackwater in arranging a $15,000 payment to the family of the slain guard.

"According to the State Department, the incident is still under investigation by the Justice Department," the report notes. "However, given the passage of nine months with no charges filed, it is unclear whether there is any serious effort to pursue a prosecution in this matter."