- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The FBI is sending a team of agents to Iraq to help investigate the deaths of 11 Iraqis involved in a Sept. 16 shootout with Blackwater USA contractors protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Baghdad.

“At the request of the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is sending a team to Iraq to assist in the ongoing investigation into the Sept. 16, 2007, shooting incident allegedly involving Blackwater employees,” said FBI spokesman Richard Kolko. He did not elaborate.

The Blackwater employees were working for the State Department when a car bomb exploded near a financial compound in western Baghdad while a U.S. official was visiting. Three Blackwater teams sought to transport the official out of the area when gunfire reportedly erupted. U.S. soldiers were dispatched to bring order to the situation.

The State Department has sent a high-level panel named by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to assess whether appropriate rules are in place for the three private firms that protect U.S. diplomats and other civilian officials in Iraq.

That is in addition to a separate investigation by a joint Iraq-U.S. committee composed of U.S. military and State Department personnel and Iraqi officials.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Congress he sent a fact-finding team to Baghdad and has reminded U.S. commanders they have the authority to discipline contractors. He told the Senate Appropriations Committee that proper oversight procedures and oversight activities were necessary to ensure that private security contractors were “doing what they are supposed to.”

Blackwater is a private security firm founded in 1997 by Erik Prince and Al Clark, former Navy Seals. Based in North Carolina, where it operates a tactical training facility, the company markets itself as the “most comprehensive professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping and stability operations company in the world.”

It is the largest of the State Department’s private security contractors and 90 percent of its revenue comes from government contracts, two-thirds of which are no-bid contracts.

According to a report prepared by the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and released yesterday, Blackwater has fired 122 persons over the past three years for problems ranging from misusing weapons, alcohol and drugs to inappropriate conduct and violent behavior.

That is roughly one-seventh of Blackwater’s work force in Iraq, a ratio that raises questions about the quality of the people working for the company.

The report also states that Blackwater has been involved in 195 shootings since 2005. In more than 80 percent of the incidents, called “escalation of force,” Blackwater’s guards fired the first shots even though the company’s contract with the State Department calls for it to use defensive force only, the report said.

The Democrats’ report was distributed to committee members on the eve of a hearing on private security contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Prince is be one of the witnesses.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell had no comment on the report. “We look forward to setting the record straight on this issue and others … when Erik Prince testifies before the committee,” she said.

On Friday, seven of the oversight committee’s 18 Republican members called on Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, the panel’s chairman, to postpone the hearing until more is known about a recent incident in Iraq involving Blackwater guards.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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