The head of the U.S.-based security firm Blackwater, testifying at a congressional hearing Tuesday, has defended its record in Iraq. VOA's Dan Robinson reports the company is the subject of a U.S. Justice Department investigation after at least 11 Iraqis were killed in a September incident involving Blackwater personnel guarding a U.S. diplomatic convoy:
With about 1,000 employees in Iraq, Blackwater is the largest of three U.S.-based private security firms protecting American diplomats and other personnel.
It gained unwanted publicity in 2004 when four of its security contractors were brutally killed by a mob in Falluja after their convoy became lost in traffic.
Since then, Blackwater operations in Iraq expanded, with the State Department paying more than $800 million for its services between 2004 and 2006
But Blackwater has become caught up in an ongoing campaign by congressional Democrats and war critics to uncover alleged wrongdoing by private contractors, who are paid far more than U.S. soldiers.
Congressman Henry Waxman opened Tuesday's hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee:
"Is Blackwater, a private military contractor, helping or hurting our efforts in Iraq?, asked Congressman Waxman. "Is the government doing enough to hold Blackwater accountable for alleged misconduct and what are the costs to the federal taxpayers?
A committee report says Blackwater was involved in 195 shooting incidents since 2005, and had to fire 122 personnel for improper conduct, including misuse of weapons and alcohol and drug violations.
The report alleges the company tried to cover up the shooting of an Iraqi man, and paid families of others inadvertently killed by its personnel.
Blackwater founder Erik Prince defended his company, describing his employees as skilled and dedicated.
"Areas of Iraq in which we operate are particularly dangerous and challenging," said Erik Prince. "Blackwater personnel are subject to regular attacks by terrorists and other nefarious forces in Iraq. We are the targets of the same ruthless enemies that have killed more than 3,800 American military personnel and thousands of innocent Iraqis.
Prince said Blackwater welcomes the U.S. government investigation of the September 16 incident in Iraq.
However, Congressman Waxman agreed that there would be no discussion of specifics, at the request of the Justice Department, which asked Congress to wait until it concludes its investigation.
The report by the House panel also criticizes the U.S. State Department for failing to restrain Blackwater activities and asserts it helped the company cover up some incidents.
Ambassador David Satterfield, a special adviser on Iraq, spoke for the Department of State:
"The Secretary of State has made clear that she wishes to have a probing, comprehensive, unvarnished examination of the overall issue of security contractors working for her department in Iraq," said Ambassador Satterfield.
After the September incident involving Blackwater, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attempted to bar the company from operating in the country saying the U.S. should replace it.
The Iraqi leader later agreed to wait for the outcome of U.S. investigations, which include an examination of private contractor security and safety issues in Iraq.
Ambassador Satterfield also said a joint U.S. and Iraqi government commission will examine the impact of an order by the former Coalition Provisional Authority which said private contractors working for the U.S. and coalition forces are not subject to Iraqi law.