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Blackwater back under scrutiny

This Sept. 24, 2007, file photo shows an Iraqi as he looks at a burnt car on the site where Blackwater guards who were escorting U.S. embassy officials opened fire in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Yarmukh. Four former employees of the notorious Blackwater security firm went on trial June 11, 2014, seven years after allegedly killing at least 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/ALI YUSSEFALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images

Blackwater is back in the news after an article in the New York Times highlighted the problematic relationship between the company and the State Department during the Iraq War.

The Times reported that Blackwater project manager John Carrol threatened State Department investigator Jean Richter in August 2007 by telling him “that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq.” The threat was described in a State Department investigation that uncovered numerous accounts of dysfunction within the company, including alcohol soaked parties in Baghdad, the commandeering of an armored vehicle by a drunk Blackwater employee, rampant over-billing and the maltreatment of local nationals.

Yet for all of the incriminating accounts of Blackwater’s negligence,  U.S. embassy personnel asked the State Department investigators to leave and accused them of disrupting their relationship with the company. Blackwater, after a series of name changes, merged in June 2014 with Triple Canopy, which currently has contracts all over the world, including in Iraq.

A few weeks after the threat, on September 16th, 2007, Blackwater personnel fired on Iraqi civilians in Nisour square, killing 17.

The company’s history in Iraq extends much further back than the two incidents in 2007.

In 2004, four Blackwater employees were shot, burned and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates, an event that signaled an important shift in the course of the war.

The four men killed by the Euphrates were Scott Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona and Mike Teague. Their deaths in the city of Fallujah, marked a watershed moment both for Blackwater and the conflict in Iraq. Until then, the large North Carolina-based private military corporation had been relegated to the periphery of the Iraq war, carrying out their protection details and assigned contracts in relative anonymity. They were plain-clothed men who appeared at the sides of ranking officials sporting Oakley sunglasses and cradling jet-black carbines.

The images of Helvenston, Zovko, Batalona and Teague’s bodies being paraded around the streets of Fallujah in March 2004 was America’s notification that the insurgency in Iraq had begun in earnest and that “mission accomplished” was anything but.

In response to the contractors’ deaths the Bush administration pledged a swift response and on April 4th, 2004 the first Battle of Fallujah began. A house to house, street to street,  bloodbath, that is to this day, one of the bloodiest battles fought by the U.S. military since Vietnam.

On the same day that American forces crossed the line of departure into Fallujah, Blackwater was securing its legacy and lucrative future contracts just 140 miles away in Najaf, Iraq in a pitched battle with Mahdi Militiamen, a Shiite paramilitary force.

“I am authorizing you, by any means necessary, to get our people out,” former Marine and Blackwater contractor Travis Haley recalled Bremmer as saying to a Blackwater official.

According to Haley’s account of the battle which he wrote this past April for its 10 year anniversary, Blackwater forces landed on the roof of the compound under fire and evacuated wounded Marine Lonnie Young on one of the company’s AH-6 helicopters. For the remainder of the day, Haley engaged targets from the roof with a semi-automatic sniper rifle, an action that was caught on video and has almost a million views on YouTube.

Today with combat operations winding down in Afghanistan and after Blackwater’s expulsion in from Iraq in 2007, the wild-west glory days for private military corporations of the likes seen in the Battle of Najaf are all but over.

“After everything that happened in 2007 it’s real strict, not like cowboys and Indians, shooting stuff up all the time,” a current Triple Canopy contractor said referring to the Blackwater shooting in 2007. “None of that stuff is even possible now.”


Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a staff writer and a former Marine infantryman.



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