US contractor Blackwater defends actions in Iraq

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WASHINGTON, Oct 2 (Reuters) US security contractor Blackwater today staunchly defended its actions in Iraq, saying there had been a ''rush to judgment'' over a shooting incident on Sept. 16 in which 11 Iraqis were killed.

In testimony prepared for the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Blackwater founder and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince said his staff acted ''appropriately'' on Sept. 16 in a very complex war zone.

''There has been a rush to judgment based on inaccurate information, and many public reports have wrongly pronounced Blackwater's guilt for the deaths of varying numbers of civilians,'' Prince said in testimony to be presented at the hearing, which was obtained by Reuters.

''Congress should not accept these allegations as truth until it has the facts,'' added Prince.

Iraq's government has been strongly critical of Blackwater and has called the shooting incident a crime.

Blackwater, which has received US government contracts worth more than a billion dollars since 2001, is under intense scrutiny over its security work in Iraq, where Prince said the North Carolina firm had about 1,000 personnel.

The hearing comes amid growing questions over the role of private contractors in Iraq and whether the US government relies too heavily on outsiders to perform jobs traditionally done by the military.

A report prepared by committee staff ahead of the hearing listed 195 shooting incidents involving Blackwater in Iraq from the start of 2005 until September 12 of this year, an average of 1.4 per week.

'VERY COMPLEX WAR ZONE' Of those, there were 16 Iraqi casualties and 162 cases with property damage. In 84 percent of the incidents, Blackwater fired first, said the report.

There are at least three investigations into the September 16 Blackwater incident, which occurred while the contractor was protecting US Embassy staff in a convoy through Baghdad.

''Based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on September 16,'' said Prince.

''Every life, whether American or Iraqi, is precious,'' he added.

The State Department's diplomatic security office is investigating the incident along with the FBI and a joint Iraq-US team is looking into what happened, along with a Pentagon inquiry.

The State Department has also sent its own high-level panel this week to Baghdad to look at protective security overall and whether the correct procedures are being followed.

Senior State Department officials are also expected to be grilled at the hearing and the committee's report on Monday accused the department of not doing enough to make Blackwater accountable for its actions and of helping it to cover up incidents involving Iraqi casualties.

''It appears that the State Department's primary response was to ask Blackwater to make monetary payments to put the 'matter behind us' rather than to insist upon accountability or to investigate Blackwater personnel for potential criminal liability,'' said the report.


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