WASHINGTON (AFP) — The private security firm Blackwater USA has been involved in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, according to a US Congress report that depicts the company's employees as dangerously out of control.
Blackwater has covered up fatal shootings involving its staff, is the first to shoot in most incidents, and has joined in US military tactical operations, the report released Monday said.
It was also highly critical of the US State Department for failing to restrain Blackwater's activities and helping to cover up some of its wrongdoings -- even protecting a drunken Blackwater employee who shot dead a guard of Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi.
The report was issued by the House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the eve of hearings into Blackwater's work in Iraq and in particular a September 16 shooting incident in a crowded Baghdad square that killed at least 10 Iraqis.
Nearly two weeks after the bloody shootout, the circumstances remain unclear, with Iraqis angry and indignant and the country's leader having demanded Blackwater's expulsion.
The hearings Tuesday are expected to see testimony from Blackwater's chairman Erik Prince, a former Navy Seal.
According to Prince's prepared testimony reported late Monday on Time magazine's website, he will argue that none of the people Blackwater protects in Iraq has been killed or seriously injured, and that there is no alternative to the private security companies who guard US officials and logistics operations there.
The largest private security firm operating in Iraq, Blackwater has received more than one billion dollars in US government contracts since 2001.
The Congressional report questions whether the expenditures on Blackwater, which it puts at 1,222 dollars per day for each security guard -- or 445,891 dollars a year -- is the best way to use taxpayer funds.
The report estimates it would cost one-sixth to one-ninth the price to use guards from the US military.
It accuses Blackwater of billing the government twice for the use of one person and other accounting tricks.
Moreover, the report quotes US military commanders as saying that Blackwater staff, "act like cowboys" with "very quick trigger fingers". One senior US military official warned that Blackwater's behavior in Iraq could damage the US image there, possibly "worse than Abu Ghraib," the US-run prison that was the site of well-publicized mistreatment of Iraqis.
Citing company information, the report says Blackwater has been involved in at least 195 'escalation of force' incidents since 2005 and that use of force is "frequent and extensive, resulting in significant casualties and property damage."
"Blackwater's contract to provide protective services to the State Department provides that Blackwater can engage in only defensive use of force. In over 80 percent of the shooting incidents, however, Blackwater reports that its forces fired the first shots," the report says.
It noted that because Blackwater guards are usually shooting from moving vehicles and do not stop to count casualties, the company itself has reported only 16 casualties in all the incidents since 2005, and 162 cases of property damage.
But it says there are multiple incidents in which Iraqi casualties went unreported, including one in which a bystander was shot in the head, and another in which a Blackwater team driving on the wrong side of the road caused a red Opel to crash and left the car behind "in a ball of flames."
The report cites two incidents in 2004 when Blackwater contractors joined in military actions, including a firefight in Najaf alongside US and Spanish forces, and another when a Blackwater helicopter team helped a US military unit take control of a mosque, firing at ground targets from the helicopter.
The document criticizes the State Department, which paid Blackwater more than 832 million dollars from 2004-2006, for helping mask problems sparked by Blackwater activities and for not keeping the firm under a tighter leash.
"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,' rather that to insist upon accountability or to investigate Blackwater personnel for potential criminal liability," the Congressional report says.
It cited the case of the drunken Blackwater employee who shot a guard of al-Mahdi in the International Zone in Baghdad on December 24, 2006.
The report says that although the Iraqis branded the case a murder, the State Department helped Blackwater get the employee out of the country and back to the United states.
No charges have been brought in the shooting.
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