A defiant Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince said yesterday he will not allow Iraqi authorities to arrest his contractors and try them in Iraq's faulty justice system.
"We will not let our people be taken by the Iraqis," Mr. Prince told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. At least 17 of 20 Blackwater guards being investigated for their roles in a Sept. 16 shooting incident are still in a secure compound in Baghdad's Green Zone and carrying out limited duties.
Two or three others have been allowed by the State Department to leave the country as part of their scheduled rotation out of Iraq and are expected to return.Yet Saddam Hussein could get a fair trial under this system.
"In an ideal sense, if there was wrongdoing, there could be a trial brought in the Iraqi court system. But that would imply that there is a valid Iraqi court system where Westerners could get a fair trial. That is not the case right now," said Mr. Prince.
Mr. Prince also expressed his disappointment that the State Department has not come to the company's defense, even though it has never lost a State Department client in years of protecting them.
"For the last week and a half, we have heard nothing from the State Department," said Mr. Prince. "From their senior levels, their PR folks, we've heard nothing — radio silence.
"It is disappointing for us. We have performed to the line, letter and verse of their 1,000-page contract," he said. "Our guys take significant risk for them. They've taken a pounding these last three years."
A number of Blackwater contractors, most of whom come from military and law-enforcement backgrounds, have been killed in action or grievously wounded in Iraq while running more than 16,500 security missions in the past three years.
Iraq's government, outraged by the Sept. 16 incident in which up to 17 Iraqis were killed as Blackwater staff tried to clear a crowded traffic circle, has accused the U.S. firm of unprovoked and random killings. Blackwater says its men were defending themselves after coming under fire.
The State Department has since ordered that cameras be placed in Blackwater security vehicles and that Diplomatic Security agents accompany Blackwater staff on missions. Mr. Prince said his company had recommended both those steps in 2005 and that the proposals were "buried" by the department.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded yesterday that Blackwater leave Iraq and pay $8 million to the family of each of the 17 victims. Iraqi Human Rights Minister Wijdan Salim said the American guards responsible should stand trial in Iraq, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.
Mr. Prince, a 38-year-old former Navy SEAL, said if there was any evidence of wrongdoing, his employees could be tried in the United States by a jury of their peers under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
He said the hostility toward Blackwater was partly driven by partisan politics from the Democrat-led Congress and the news media.
"The far left was unsuccessful in attacking [Army Gen. David H.] Petraeus and defunding the war, forcing a pullback of the U.S. troops," he said. "I think part of the strategy might be to undermine some other part of the support infrastructure, and that would be contractors that are an important part of the supporting package there in Iraq."
He said the scrutiny by Congress, which Democrats say is aimed at better oversight, may have backfired.
"What has happened in the last six to nine months is we've seen the U.S. government, [Department of Defense] in particular, awarding a lot more work to non-U.S. companies ... because it is harder to drag those guys before Congress," Mr. Prince said.
"And there is less oversight, there is less accountability, there is less visibility into those operations."
Mr. Prince has been caught in a partisan crossfire since shortly after last year's election, when a trial lawyer targeting Blackwater lobbied then-House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, for hearings on the "extremely Republican" company.
Mr. Prince emphasized that his guards are proven professionals, recruited on the basis of their prior military, special operations and law-enforcement experiences.
"They go through extensive vetting, training, 160 plus hours of security training, psychological evaluations, security clearances, background checks" and cultural training, he said.
Iraqis and other expatriate security companies on the ground in Iraq have complained that Blackwater guards have been overly and unnecessarily aggressive in their attitudes.
O, to have a boss who wouldn't allow me to get arrested.