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Friday, November 06, 2009

Helicopter Shortage: State Department Fumbles Effort to Oust Blackwater from Iraq

Mark Hosenball
Your tax dollars at work: as part of their effort to stop doing business in Iraq with companies affiliated with the controversial paramilitary contractor formerly known as Blackwater, the State Department earlier this year hired a rival contractor to fly civilian U.S. personnel around the war-torn country by helicopter. But officials subsequently learned that helicopters the replacement contractor, Dyncorp International, was planning to use for this service didn’t meet government safety standards. So as a result, the Department was forced to extend for several months its air-transport contract with an affiliate of ... the contractor formerly known as Blackwater.

The State Department’s machinations are the latest chapter in the government’s turbulent relationship with companies affiliated with Blackwater, a North Carolina-based paramilitary training, protection, and transport outfit whose name became one of the most toxic words in American politics after a series of incidents in which security officers employed by the firm allegedly killed or injured Iraqi civilians. The incidents, which included eight Iraqis dying on September 16, 2007 after Blackwater employees allegedly fired automatic rifles and threw grenades into a crowd in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square, led to congressional hearings, multiple U.S. investigations of Blackwater personnel, and a declaration by the Iraqi government last March that it was withdrawing the license of Blackwater and its affiliates to do business in Iraq.

Blackwater, which renamed itself Xe Services, has denied corporate wrongdoing and recently won a victory in court: a federal Judge in Alexandria, Va., dismissed on legal grounds a series of wrongful death and injury cases filed by Iraqis against Xe Services, its affiliates, and its owner, Erik Prince. (The judge did invite the plaintiffs to amend their claims.) Despite being declared persona non grata in Iraq, Xe and its affiliates retain major contracts with U.S. government agencies—including the State Department, and reportedly, the CIA—in other parts of the world such as Afghanistan, say U.S. and private security-industry officials. State Department and industry officials also note that the incidents and investigations were related to the company’s ground-based bodyguard operations in Iraq. The company’s air-transport operations have not been implicated in scandal.


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