Blackwater Denies Any Wrongdoing in Shooting Incident
Bloomberg (2007-09-17) Ken Fireman, Robin Stringer
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By Ken Fireman and Robin Stringer
Sept. 17 (Bloomberg) -- A Blackwater USA spokeswoman said the U.S. security company is blameless of wrongdoing in a shooting incident in Baghdad and expects to be exonerated by any investigation.
Anne Tyrrell, director of public affairs for Blackwater, said its personnel fired only in self-defense while protecting a motorcade of U.S. officials traveling through the Iraqi capital yesterday. The Moyock, North Carolina-based company provides security for U.S. State Department personnel in Iraq.
``We were responding to a threat,'' Tyrrell said in a telephone interview. ``We were fired upon before we ever engaged. So we are confident that as soon as all investigations are complete, it will be determined that we did nothing wrong.''
A spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry, Abdel Karim Khalaf, said earlier today that it was revoking Blackwater's license to operate because of the shooting incident. Tyrrell said the company hasn't received official notification of the revocation and can't comment until it has.
Khalaf told state television that eight people were killed and 13 others wounded when Blackwater guards opened fire during an attack on a State Department convoy. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki denounced the incident as ``criminal'' in a statement carried on state television.
Tyrrell said the incident began when the motorcade ``took fire from various directions'' as it passed through a heavily trafficked area.
She said Blackwater personnel guarding the convoy responded with small-arms fire, shooting only at those who were attacking the motorcade. She said at least one Blackwater helicopter arrived on the scene and circled the area, yet didn't open fire.
``We responded well within the rules of engagement to protect our people,'' Tyrrell said. ``And we protected them and then we got out. They did their jobs defending American life.''
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Maliki and ``expressed regret'' over the incident, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington. He said Rice told Maliki the U.S. was investigating what happened.
Mirembe Nantongo, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, refused to say whether Blackwater was still operating. ``We are cooperating with the Iraqi government to address the many issues,'' she said today in a conference call from Baghdad. The guards fired ``in response to a car bombing,'' she added.
Embassy Information Officer Johann Schmonsees said the bombing was ``in proximity to where the State Department personnel were meeting.''
Blackwater is one of several security companies operating in Iraq that fulfill roles as diverse as guards, builders, chefs and interrogators. Security contractors have frequently been accused of using excessive force and killing Iraqi civilians.
No private security employee working in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion has ever been tried there or in any coalition country. It is unclear what, if any, accountability or laws they are subject to as private employees.
The chairman of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Henry Waxman, called the controversy over the shooting incident ``an unfortunate demonstration of the perils of excessive reliance on private security contractors.''
Waxman, a California Democrat, said his committee would hold hearings ``to understand what has happened and the extent of the damage to U.S. security interests.''
A United Nations working group on the use of mercenaries said in February there were about 48,000 private employees carrying out functions in support of the coalition forces in 2006, a figure about a third of the size of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and almost 10 times the deployment by the U.K.'s contingent in the country.
Some 420 private security workers had been killed in Iraq from the 2003 invasion up to November 2006, according to the UN report. Blackwater leads all the major security companies in number of deaths, with 25 in the period from the 2003 invasion through June 30, according to U.S. Labor Department data. The company also has had 125 workers seriously injured in Iraq.
Security companies in Iraq ``commonly operate without control, without visibility, without being accountable beyond the private company itself, and in complete impunity,'' the UN working group said.
Schmonsees, the embassy information officer, declined to say how many Blackwater employees are in Iraq. Jeremy Scahill, author of ``Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army,'' wrote that the company has more than 2,300 security personnel deployed around the world.
Blackwater USA was founded in 1997 by a former U.S. Navy Seal, and its contractors are mostly former members of the military. Its name became famous when four Blackwater guards were killed in a March 2004 ambush on their vehicles in Fallujah, Iraq.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ken Fireman in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
Robin Stringer in London at email@example.com
; Last Updated: September 17, 2007 17:43 EDT