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Blackwater chief disputes 'negative and baseless allegations'

  • Story Highlights
  • Blackwater boss to say guards responded properly to insurgent attack last month
  • Erik Prince scheduled to appear before House committee on Tuesday
  • Panel report: Company has inflicted "significant casualties and property damage"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The chairman of military contractor Blackwater is defending his company from "negative and baseless allegations" surrounding a bloody day in Baghdad, telling a House committee that its guards responded properly to an insurgent attack last month.

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An Iraqi woman walks past a car damaged in the September 16 incident involving Blackwater.

The Iraqi government says Blackwater contractors guarding a U.S. Embassy convoy opened fire on civilians in western Baghdad on September 16, killing as many as 20 people.

And a report issued Monday by the Democratic majority staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found the company has inflicted "significant casualties and property damage" in Iraq while guarding State Department officials.

Blackwater chairman Erik Prince is scheduled to appear before the committee on Tuesday. In his opening statement, obtained by CNN, he tells representatives his company and its employees are victims of a "rush to judgment" about the Baghdad shootings.

"To the extent there was loss of innocent life, let me be clear that I consider that tragic. Every life, whether American or Iraqi, is precious," Prince says in his statement. But he adds that "based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on Sept. 16."

Prince, a former Navy SEAL officer, founded Blackwater in 1997. Its business skyrocketed after al Qaeda's 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, where the U.S. government hired it to provide security in hostile areas.

In Iraq, the State Department has paid Blackwater more than $830 million to protect its officials since 2004, the House panel's report concludes.

"Blackwater personnel are subject to regular attacks by terrorists and other nefarious forces within Iraq. We are targets of the same ruthless enemies that have killed more than 3,800 American military personnel and thousands of innocent Iraqis," Prince says.

Blackwater has about 1,000 people, largely former American military personnel, working in Iraq. The company has seen 30 employees killed there during the 4-year-old war, but no one entrusted to their care has been killed or seriously hurt, he says.

"There is no better evidence of the skill and dedication of these men," he says.

But the company has come under intense scrutiny since the shootings in western Baghdad's Nisoor Square two weeks ago. They spurred an outcry among Iraqi leaders and a debate over the accountability of contractors -- who are not subject to Iraqi law for actions taken within their contracts, due to an order by the U.S.-led occupation government in 2004.

Iraqi authorities have said Blackwater guards fired indiscriminately at motorists in the square. But Prince says the convoy his contractors were guarding came under attack from insurgents near the square and says some of them were dressed in Iraqi police uniforms.

"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," he says. "Congress should not accept these allegations as truth until it has the facts."

And he defends his company from concerns that his guards are reckless in their use of deadly force, saying guards have opened fire during only 56 of the 1,873 security details it has conducted so far in 2007.

The committee staff report states that Blackwater guards fired their weapons 195 times between the beginning of 2005 through the second week of September, an average of more than once a week.

Though the company's contractors are authorized to use force only defensively, "the vast majority of Blackwater weapons discharges are preemptive, with Blackwater forces firing first at a vehicle or suspicious individual prior to receiving any fire," the report says.

The report is also critical of the State Department. In cases where Iraqis have been killed, "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."

"The most serious consequence faced by Blackwater personnel for misconduct appears to be termination of their employment," the report states.

In one case cited in Monday's report, a Blackwater guard who was visibly drunk shot and killed a bodyguard of Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi during a confrontation in the Green Zone on Christmas Eve in 2006.

Blackwater hustled the guard out of the country within 36 hours, with State Department approval, and the company later paid the Iraqi's family $15,000, the report states.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told a Senate committee last week that the incident is under investigation by the Justice Department, but no charges have been filed against the man.

The report also questions whether the government is saving money by hiring out its security work. It found the government pays the company about $1,200 a day for each contractor on the job in Iraq -- between six and nine times the pay and allowances of an Army sergeant.

The committee's chairman, California Democrat Henry Waxman, has been investigating the use of private security contractors in Iraq.

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A majority staff report last week found Blackwater "delayed and impeded" a probe into the 2004 killings of four of its employees in the Iraqi city of Falluja -- a pivotal event in the 4-year-old war in Iraq -- and that the slain men were sent into the insurgent-riddled city without proper crew, equipment or maps.

Blackwater called the report "a one-sided version of this tragic incident," and said that its contractors were "betrayed and directed into a well-planned ambush." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Suzanne Simons contributed to this report.

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