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For Blackwater, a year in uncomfortable spotlight

Hampton Roads.com (2007-12-29) Bill Sizemore

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By Bill Sizemore

On Christmas Eve 2006, in an alcohol-fueled confrontation inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, a Blackwater security contractor shot and killed a personal bodyguard to Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

A year later, he has not been charged with a crime.

That shooting foreshadowed what has been a bloody year for Blackwater, literally and figuratively. The Moyock, N.C.-based private military company has taken a public thrashing from Baghdad to Washington to California for the actions of its armed security men in Iraq.

As Blackwater heads into 2008, a number of investigations, inquiries and lawsuits are still swirling around the company. Several were sparked by a Sept. 16 shooting in a Baghdad traffic square in which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians. The FBI and a federal grand jury are still looking into the incident.

In the weeks following that incident , a congressional committee released data showing that the company’s contractors have been involved in nearly 200 shooting incidents in Iraq since Jan. 1, 2005.

At the heart of the scrutiny is the question of accountability. Nearly five years after the U.S.-led invasion, tens of thousands of armed civilian contractors have cycled through the Iraq war zone.

Not one has been charged with a violent crime against an Iraqi.

One of the earliest public airings of the accountability issue arose out of the December 2006 shooting in the Green Zone, which was first reported by The Virginian-Pilot in January.

The shooter, identified in later media reports as Andrew Moonen, was one of about 1,000 armed security contractors working in Iraq for Blackwater under a multimillion-dollar contract with the State Department to protect American diplomatic personnel. Within 36 hours after the shooting, he was fired and flown home.

In diplomatic correspondence obtained by The Pilot under the Freedom of Information Act, Vice President Abdul-Mahdi assured the U.S. ambassador that he was trying to keep the incident out of the public eye. Nevertheless, Abdul-Mahdi said, he hoped the shooter would be brought to justice because Iraqis would not understand how a foreigner could kill an Iraqi and be spirited back home a free man.

According to State Department documents obtained by Congress, the department and Blackwater agreed on a $15,000 payment to be made to the family of the slain Iraqi bodyguard.

CNN reported that Moonen went to work for another military contractor in Kuwait in February.

Stewart Riley, a Seattle lawyer who represents Moonen, said government lawyers have told him there is an “ongoing investigation” of the case but have given him no indication of whether his client will be charged.

Meanwhile, in the year since the Christmas Eve shooting, Blackwater has weathered a steady drumbeat of bad news:

- Five Blackwater contractors were killed Jan. 23 when their helicopters came under attack while protecting an American convoy.

- In a harbinger of heightened scrutiny of the private military industry by the new Democratic-controlled Congress, a House panel heard emotional testimony Feb. 7 from family members of the four Blackwater contractors who were killed, their bodies mutilated and hung from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. The families are suing Blackwater for wrongful death.

- After encountering public and political opposition in the Philippines, Blackwater said in April that its plans to open an Asian branch on the site of the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay had been scrapped.

- The Sept. 16 shootings in Baghdad prompted angry Iraqi officials to demand that Blackwater be ousted from the country and put the company’s lucrative diplomatic security contract in jeopardy.

- In October, a week after Blackwater CEO Erik Prince assured Congress that Blackwater welcomes increased accountability, the company abruptly pulled out of its Washington-based trade group, which had just authorized an independent review of its conduct.

- A three-judge federal appeals court panel ruled against Blackwater in October, allowing a wrongful-death lawsuit against the company’s aviation affiliate to proceed in Florida. The plaintiffs are relatives of three U.S. servicemen who were killed, along with three civilian crew members, when a Blackwater aircraft crashed into a mountainside in Afghanistan in 2004. The company is appealing the decision.

- Seven protesters were arrested Oct. 20 at Blackwater’s Moyock headquarters after staging a re-enactment of the Sept. 16 shootings. In December trials, all but one of which were closed to the press and public, they were convicted of trespassing. The verdicts are under appeal.

- Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, accused Blackwater in October of evading millions of dollars in taxes by improperly classifying its security operatives as independent contractors, not employees. The company denied the allegation.

- State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard, accused by Waxman of impeding an investigation into alleged arms smuggling by Blackwater, resigned in December after it was revealed that his brother, Alvin “Buzzy” Krongard, had taken a position on Blackwater’s advisory board. Alvin Krongard also gave up the Blackwater post.

- Residents of tiny Potrero, Calif., 45 miles east of San Diego, voted overwhelmingly Dec. 11 to recall five members of an advisory planning board who had approved Blackwater’s proposal to build a West Coast base on an 824-acre chicken and cattle ranch. The company vowed to push ahead with the controversial plan despite the vote.

- In December, one of Blackwater’s K-9 handlers fatally shot a dog in The New York Times’ Baghdad compound. A company spokeswoman said The Times’ dog had attacked one of Blackwater’s bomb-sniffing dogs.

Bill Sizemore, (757) 446-2276, bill.sizemore@pilotonline.com [1]

Source URL (retrieved on 12/30/2007 - 00:49): http://hamptonroads.com/2007/12/blackwater%2C-year-uncomfortable-spotlight

Media Form edit

Title For Blackwater, a year in uncomfortable spotlight
Publisher Hampton Roads.com
Author Bill Sizemore
Pub Date 2007-12-29
Media Link
Note Web page no longer exists
Keywords Blackwater, Blackwater West, Local Politics
Media Type Article
Curator Rating Plain
Book ISBN
Author Name Sortable
Topic revision: r1 - 2008-02-08, CathyMiller
 

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