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Thursday, September 20, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blackwater shooting incident — bane or boon?

Iraq developments

A U.S. soldier was killed during combat operations west of Baghdad and another died of non-battle-related causes, the military said.

The Bush administration, acknowledging a moral obligation, intends to sharply increase the number of Iraqi refugees it will admit to the United States next year, a senior State Department official said.

Seattle Times news services

Banned by the Iraqi government after a shooting incident in Baghdad that left 11 Iraqi civilians dead, the American security firm Blackwater USA is sure to draw more scrutiny from opponents who see the North Carolina-based company as an unregulated army.

But for supporters, the incident only bolsters Blackwater. They hail the company's work as a heroic necessity and say the incident will enhance Blackwater as it expands its business of training law-enforcement officers domestically and abroad while seeking more lucrative government contracts for international work.

"It's going to be good for their business; they were doing their job this week and doing it well," said Gordon Hammers, chairman of a county land-use planning advisory group in eastern San Diego County, Calif., who favors Blackwater's plan to open a training facility on a former chicken ranch there.

"No Americans were killed," said Hammers, who is facing a local recall election for his support of Blackwater. "That is the bottom line. It only shows Americans how valuable their expertise is in training our law enforcement. We need them."

The trouble began when Blackwater security guards protecting a U.S. motorcade in Baghdad reportedly opened fire Sunday after hearing a car bomb explode nearby. Officials still are investigating what happened, but Iraqi authorities accused the guards of firing on innocent civilians.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday demanded that the U.S. Embassy replace Blackwater.

"This crime has inflamed contempt, hatred and anger both from the government and the Iraqi public," al-Maliki said. "Hence, it is important that this company's activities be frozen and the American Embassy invest in the services of another one."

Al-Maliki reiterated that the Iraqi government's preliminary investigation found that Blackwater security had fired without provocation Sunday.

"This company should be punished," al-Maliki said. "We are not going to allow it to kill Iraqis in cold blood."

Some Iraqi leaders called for the Blackwater guards to be tried in Iraqi courts, but U.S. officials in 2004 granted its private security contractors legal protection from prosecution in Iraq and the United States.

Blackwater defended itself Tuesday.

"Blackwater regrets any loss of life, but this convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job to defend human life," Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said in a statement.

Blackwater was founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince. Other company leaders also are military special-operations veterans. The company describes itself as the most comprehensive such firm in the world.

Its detractors say it may be the most aggressive, as well. Both feared and revered, Blackwater has a tough image in the Wild West atmosphere of today's Iraq. Security personnel and others who work in the country all have stories to tell about Blackwater contractors, known for their devil-may-care attitude on the roads and aggressive tactics.

Blackwater helicopters swirl through the skies like insects. Distinctive for their spherical glass canopies and their persistent whine, they inadvertently announce that an official entourage is racing along somewhere below.

At least 15 Blackwater employees have been killed in Iraq. Family members of four Blackwater employees who were killed in Fallujah in March 2004 — an incident that led to the full-scale U.S. assault on that city — allege the company sent the men into dangerous territory without adequate backup. In testimony before Congress last February, family members of the men said: "Private military contractors like Blackwater operate outside the military's chain of command and can literally do whatever they please without any liability or accountability from the U.S. government."

According to the four families' statement, the men killed in Fallujah had been promised armored vehicles, six-man teams and extensive briefings with maps and intelligence information before conducting missions in Iraq. In the Fallujah incident, none of that was provided, the families said.

The firm also has been involved in some notorious past incidents, including one last Christmas, in which an inebriated off-duty Blackwater employee shot and killed a guard working for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi inside the Green Zone.

Blackwater's appearance in Illinois this year also has generated protests.

After the Chicago Tribune reported this summer about possible conflicts of interest in a business arrangement between the University of Illinois police-training institute and Blackwater, the university severed its ties with the firm.

But Blackwater appears undeterred in its push to expand its business in the U.S. Besides its sprawling training facility in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater opened a domestic law-enforcement training center in western Illinois in the spring that has trained hundreds of officers from as far away as New York, the company said.

Sunday's incident "gives us real concern as to what they will be up to domestically," said Christian Stalberg, who is organizing an opposition group called Blackwater Watch near company headquarters in North Carolina. "Congress needs to act to put a brake on them, because they are totally unregulated."

Information from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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