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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Blackwater: a private army in Iraq

source almanarTV

17/09/2007 Armed contractors employed by private US security firm Blackwater USA gained a reputation of shooting first and not bothering to ask questions later as they charged through Iraq protecting US personnel and property.

The North Carolina firm, whose license was cancelled by the Iraqi government on Monday after its personnel were involved in a deadly shootout in Baghdad, has never been far from controversy in war-ravaged Iraq. Nor have its estimated 1,000 or so contractors in Iraq, who have been drawn increasingly into the war, been far from death.

Established 10 years ago by Erik Prince, right-wing son of a multi-millionaire and a former Navy SEAL, the security consulting firm has grown into what US investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill describes as the "world's most powerful mercenary army." According to Scahill, Blackwater has "more than 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries including the United States." Its "private soldiers" arrived in Iraq soon after the US-led invasion of March 2003, being employed by then US pro-consul Paul Bremer to provide protection for US officials.

Blackwater's presence has however been a bone of contention for Iraqi officials as it has never been clear whether they are immune from prosecution. Blackwater's security consulting division holds at least 109 million dollars worth of State Department contracts in Iraq and is authorized to use deadly force, according to a Washington Post report in June.

Armed contractors are deployed to protect US officials and convoys transporting reconstruction material, including vehicles, weapons and ammunition for the Iraqi army and police. But, the report said, they are becoming increasingly involved in military action, fighting militiamen, enduring attacks and taking hundreds of casualties that have been sometimes concealed.

Armed contractors can make up to 20,000 dollars a month in Iraq but the risks are high. Blackwater lost four employees in Fallujah in March 2004 when a mob mutilated their bodies and hanged them from a bridge. The slaughter sparked the first major US assault on Fallujah. In April 2005, Blackwater contractors were again in the line of fire when six were killed after fighters downed a Bulgarian helicopter with a missile strike near the northern city of Tikrit. A seventh Blackwater employee was killed at the same time near Ramadi when a roadside bomb blew up near his vehicle.

For Iraqis, Blackwater contractors were known for their propensity to open fire indiscriminately when they felt they were under threat. In May, according to the Washington Post, a guard working for Blackwater shot and killed an Iraqi driver near the interior ministry. The Blackwater guards said the victim drove too close to their convoy and drew fire, the report said.

Also in May, a Blackwater-protected convoy was ambushed in downtown Baghdad, triggering a furious battle, in which the security contractors, US and Iraqi troops and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters opened fire in a crowded area. A similar incident occurred on Sunday, when Blackwater guards were escorting a US diplomatic convoy through the Al-Yarmukh neighborhood of west Baghdad. Witnesses and victims lying in hospital suffering gunshot wounds said the Blackwater guards had opened indiscriminate fire into the crowded streets and at cars trapped behind the convoy. When the pandemonium had died down, at least eight people were dead and 13 wounded. The incident was just one too many for the Iraqi authorities, who on Monday issued orders to revoke Blackwater's license.

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