Blackwater boss defends his thugs

The boss of US security contractor Blackwater Tuesday denied his staff ran riot like “cowboys” and said they acted appropriately in a Baghdad shootout which left at least 10 Iraqis dead.

Company founder and chief executive Erik Prince, an ex-Navy SEAL who had previously shunned the limelight, warned lawmakers there had been a “rush to judgment” over the deadly September 16 shooting.

Prince, wearing a suit and close cropped hair, confronted hostile Democratic lawmakers determined to put his firm, which has reportedly scooped one billion dollars in US government contracts, in the dock.

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

“To the extent there was loss of innocent life, let me be clear that I consider that tragic,” said Prince.

Prince appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee amid a public storm over the role of for-profit contract firms in war zones, and a string of probes into Blackwater’s conduct.

A committee report found that Blackwater, which protects US diplomats and visiting dignitaries in Iraq, had been involved in nearly 200 shootings there since 2005, and accused it of covering up fatal shootings involving its staff.

But Prince warned the firm was the victim of “negative and baseless allegations reported as truth.”

“There has been a rush to judgment based on inaccurate information,” he said.

Committee chairman Henry Waxman questioned whether Blackwater activities conflicted with US interests.

“The September 16 shooting … is just the latest in a series of troubling Blackwater incidents,” the Democrat said.

In one cited by the committee, a drunken Blackwater employee shot and killed a guard of Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi.

Prince said the man had broken company rules, and had been immediately fired, and he rejected a remark by one senior US commander quoted in the Washington Post that Blackwater employees “often act like cowboys.”

“We strive for perfection … but the fog of war and accidents, and the bad guys just have to get lucky once.”

Representative Dennis Kucinich, a longshot Democratic presidential hopeful, said firms like Blackwater had no interest in promoting peace.

“If war is privatized, then private contractors have a vested interest in keeping the war going. The longer the war goes on, the more money they make.”

Prince said no one, including US lawmakers on visits to Iraq, had been killed while being protected by Blackwater guards, most US veterans, while 30 employees had died while on duty.

The committee report accused the State Department of failing to restrain Blackwater’s activities and helping to cover up some wrongdoings.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she wanted a full probe into the firm.

“I have been very clear with people that I expect it to be probing, I expect it to be a 360-degree look,” she told the New York Post.

The FBI meanwhile said Tuesday that it had sent a team to Iraq to help the State Department investigate the Baghdad shooting.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in San Salvador meanwhile that Pentagon investigators who recently made a survey of private contractors in the country, had made recommendations for strengthening oversight.

Blackwater guards opened fire on September 16 as they protected a convoy of American diplomats in west Baghdad, killing at least 10 Iraqis.

The firm said its guards fired in response to a car bomb, but a senior police officer said the shooting was unprovoked.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani met President George W. Bush at the White House as Prince was in the hot seat, but did not mention the contractor, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

“I don’t think that he (Bush) has any reason to believe that they are not, at the moment, conducting themselves appropriately,” she said.