Iraq security firm denies trigger-happy charge

The United States company at the centre of the scandal over the role of private security guards in Iraq brushed aside accusations that it was a cowboy outfit on Tuesday, even as details emerged about a incident in which an allegedly drunken member was involved in a fatal shooting. Testifying before a congressional hearing Erik Prince, the normally secretive head of Blackwater, denied his company was overly aggressive.

The company is in the middle of a tug of war between the Iraqi government and the US State Department following the alleged killing of 11 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad on September 16. Blackwater has been blamed.

The Iraqi government has called for the company to be expelled but the state department, which relies on Blackwater for protection of its diplomats, wants it to stay. The hearing offered the first opportunity to hear Blackwater’s side of the story in detail. But the US justice department unexpectedly stepped in at the last minute and asked that the congressional committee and Prince avoid specific questions about the September incident.

In an opening statement before the House oversight committee, Prince (38) defended his company in relation to the killings. ”There has been a rush to judgement based on inaccurate information, and many public reports have wrongly pronounced Blackwater’s guilt for the deaths of varying numbers of civilians,” he said. ”Congress should not accept these allegations as truth until it has the facts. Based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on September 16.”

But a memo by congressional staff said Blackwater has been involved in an average of 1,4 shootings a week. The memo detailed various incidents, including one on December 24 when a 26-year-old Blackwater staffer killed a 32-year-old guard to Adil Abd al-Mahdi, the Iraqi Vice-President, provoking an angry response from the Iraqi government.

The memo said that documents it had obtained say ”the Blackwater contractor, who worked as an armourer, had attended a party on the evening of December 24, had consumed several alcoholic beverages and was described as drunk by witnesses who encountered him that evening”.

Armed with a Glock 9mm pistol he passed through a gate near the compound of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, when he was confronted by the Iraqi security guard. He opened fire with his pistol, hitting one of the guards, Raheem Khalif, three times. Khalif (32) later died at a US military hospital.

The Blackwater employee fled to a guard post, where he said he had been in a gunfight with Iraqis who were chasing him and shooting at him. But the guards had not heard any shots.

Prince said the employee had been sacked and fined. Asked why he had been whisked out of Iraq within two days without being charged, Prince said the company had no power to detain anyone. ”We can’t flog him, we can’t incarcerate him,” he said.

A former navy Seal, Prince portrayed his company as professional and patriotic. He denied it was overly aggressive and insisted it whisked away clients from ambush sites as quickly as possible. ”We only play defence,” he said.

He said the company had fulfilled its task in Iraq since 2003 with ”zero” loss of clients, mainly US diplomats, visiting Congressmen and reconstruction workers. By contrast, his team had lost 30 guards.

He stressed the dangers that his team faced in carrying out their work, which was to get clients — ”our package” — away from an ambush site as fast as possible.

He said the company had clear rules of engagement. Its vehicles had warnings in Arabic to other drivers to keep at least 100m away. If a car, potentially a suicide bomber, approached at speed, Blackwater guards would provide further warnings through hand signals, then fire non-lethal incendiary devices and sometimes throw water bottles.

If all that failed, a guard would shoot out the radiator to disable a vehicle, then a shot through the centre of a windscreen to make it difficult to drive and, finally, shoot directly at the driver, Prince said.

Prince was helped by divisions on the committee between Democrats, who were critical, and Republicans who thought the company had been successful in fulfilling its protection role.

The committee chairperson, the Democrat Henry Waxman, said a sergeant in the US army cost the taxpayer about $50 000 or more a year whereas a Blackwater guard cost six times that. ”Are we paying more and getting less?” he asked. He referred to an incident in Afghanistan in which two Blackwater pilots had crashed, with the loss of three US soldiers, after flying low, allegedly for fun.

Under fire

The alleged shooting of 11 Iraqis in Baghdad by the security firm Blackwater on September 16 opened the way for a debate in the US about the privatisation of war. Iraq’s Interior Ministry ordered the expulsion of Blackwater after the killings but Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, whose diplomats depend on the company for protection, pleaded for them stay. The fate of the company theoretically depends on a joint Iraqi-US inquiry and a separate FBI one. Although Blackwater is one of 170 security firms in Iraq, it has gained notoriety as one of the most aggressive, a charge its founder Erik Prince denies. Prince, a former US navy Seal, set up Blackwater in 1997. It earned about $1-billion from the US government last year. Opponents of security firms such as Blackwater say they are unaccountable and stoke local hostility. Supporters say they fill a gap that the US military cannot. – Guardian Unlimited Â

An actual Black Friday deal

Subscribe for R2/mth for the first three months. Cancel anytime.

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Brakes put on foreign truck drivers

New legislation aims to protect local jobs in the transport sector amid questions as to whether SA has enough willing and skilled drivers

SANParks shifts to solar and spekboom

Solar-generated pumps are pumping larger volumes of water for wildlife than diesel used to, and spekboom is helping offset carbon emissions

Mandatory vaccination on cards as Ramaphosa keeps South Africa on...

Ramaphosa calls out world leaders for irrational travel bans as scientists gather evidence on new Omicron variant

South Africa’s just energy transition: A balancing act

South Africa’s transition to renewables will depend on its ability to attract sustained energy investments

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…