Private Security Contractors Face Incoming Political Fire

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At the House hearing, Blackwater USA founder and CEO Erik Prince defended his employees' actions.

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BAGHDAD—An 8½-by-11-inch photograph tacked up in a U.S. military cubicle here shows a Blackwater USA security contractor cradling an assault rifle, wearing mirrored sunglasses, and looking tough and cool. Below it, someone has posted a gently mocking caption: "I cannot hear you over the sound of my awesomeness."

But, on Capitol Hill, more disturbing descriptions are being pinned on Blackwater personnel, such as "aggressive," "reckless," and "not accountable" to the Iraqi or U.S. government. A House committee last week was looking into allegations of serious abuses by Blackwater, which provides security for U.S. diplomats in Iraq. The committee, headed by Rep. Henry Waxman, released a Democratic staff report based on Blackwater's own documents showing that its employees were involved in at least 195 "escalation of force" incidents since early 2005—and that they fired the first shots in 80 percent of those cases.

The controversy overshadowed other news last week on the Iraq front that buoyed the Bush administration: the substantial September drop in both Iraqi and U.S. military deaths from August levels. In addition, the Senate's Democratic leaders seemed reluctant to face another run-in with the White House by taking up legislation, passed by the House 377 to 46, that would give the Bush administration two months to submit a general Iraq withdrawal plan without a timetable.

As the Waxman hearing was playing out in Washington, military officers in Baghdad offered their own long-standing complaints about Blackwater and other private security operations. While acknowledging that the private security personnel have an important job to do, some American soldiers tell U.S. News that they have witnessed aggressive behavior by Blackwater contractors that runs the spectrum from reckless driving that "runs cars off the road for no good reason" to one particular shootout with an American military convoy that resulted in the deaths of two Iraqis and one American contractor. At the U.S. military hospital where both parties took their wounded after that shooting, military officials in the convoy and Blackwater contractors "nearly came to blows," an officer present at the incident tells U.S. News.

Heavy-handed. Blackwater, which has been paid more than $1 billion for its security work in Iraq, boasts that no American official under its protection has been killed. And just last week, a Blackwater team was called into action after a bombing assassination attempt on the Polish ambassador in Baghdad. Blackwater personnel evacuated the wounded diplomat and his Polish security detail by helicopter to a U.S. combat hospital.

Still, U.S. officials say that Blackwater's manner of operation can conflict with military objectives. "They are heavy-handed," complains one senior U.S. military official. "And we've paid the price." That price includes facing resentment and anger from the very Iraqi civilians that U.S. soldiers are trying to win over. Few Iraqis differentiate between the U.S. military and the "Blackwater guys who drive around in their black Suburbans," says the senior officer. As a result, adds another U.S. military official here, actions by Blackwater "can turn an entire district against us."

The latest congressional scrutiny of Blackwater follows a September 16 shootout in Baghdad that left at least 11 Iraqis dead. While there are conflicting accounts of the cause, a graphic video of the aftermath shows bloodied windshields of bullet-riddled cars, one of which contains the charred remains of two bodies that appear to be huddled together for cover. The cars are stopped dead in their tracks, hoods smoking, on a street scattered with shoes and bullet shells.

Such incidents, says the senior U.S. officer, create a no-win situation with the Iraqis. "They still blame us—they look at us like, 'Why can't you stop this from happening?'" Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki echoed these sentiments, saying that "there is a sense of tension and anger among all Iraqis, including the government, over this crime."