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Congress Probes Blackwater

A hearing on Capitol Hill is casting a long-delayed spotlight on what has become an integral part of just about every major U.S. combat operation today--the increasing reliance on private security contractors in conflict zones like Iraq.

The North Carolina-based firm Blackwater USA has received the bulk of the criticism leading up to this morning's hearing in front of the House Oversight of Government Reform Committee.

Henry Waxman, the committee's Democratic chairman, called the firm's record in Iraq "troubling" after a report by the committee's Democratic staffers found that in nearly 200 incidents since 2005 in which Blackwater contractors fired their weapons, they fired first 80 percent of the time.

But in some ways, the true focus is on the State Department, which hired Blackwater to protect U.S. diplomats and visiting congressional delegations in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Waxman blasted the State Department as a Blackwater "enabler" by failing to provide sufficient oversight of the contract. Blackwater's operations in Iraq are directed and coordinated by the U.S. Embassy's security officer.

Erik Prince, Blackwater's chief executive officer, appeared before the committee to make his most public defense yet of his company's record, pointing out that it operates in a particularly hostile environment.

"Vehicles get shot at on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day," Prince told the committee. Despite this, he said that his employees used their weapons in fewer than 1 percent of the thousands of missions they performed in 2006. "We only play defense," he added later.

Blackwater has more than 1,000 security personnel in Iraq at any given time and last year was paid nearly $600 million for its work there. But Prince said the company has been successful.

"No individual protected by Blackwater has ever been killed or seriously injured," Prince testified.

Prince fielded questions about numerous incidents that were described in the committee staffers' report, particularly an incident inside Baghdad's Green Zone in which a drunken Blackwater guard allegedly shot and killed an Iraqi vice president's bodyguard. The accused contractor was fired, but several representatives blasted Prince for helping his employee leave Iraq immediately.

According to the report, the State Department later advised Blackwater on how much money ($15,000) to pay to the bodyguard's family for compensation. Criminal charges were never filed

By Kevin Whitelaw