The Iraqi government has ordered hundreds of private security contractors who previously worked for Blackwater Worldwide or its subsidiaries to leave the country within seven days or risk arrest for visa violations, Iraq’s interior minister said Wednesday.
The order applies to roughly 250 security contractors who worked for Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, in Iraq at the time of a deadly shooting incident in 2007 that killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told The Associated Press.
A number of the guards now work for other security contractors in Iraq, or a Blackwater subsidiary that still remains active in the country.
But the company denied it had any employees currently in Iraq, including with one of its subsidiaries, Presidential Airways, which provides aviation services to the State Department.
"Xe does not have one single person in Iraq," Xe spokeswoman Stacy DeLuke told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
Last year, the company was denied a license to operate in Iraq and its contracts were formally discontinued by the State Department. A competitor, Triple Canopy, has replaced them.
Losing its contract in Iraq marked a major setback for the company, as it is reported to make up one-third to one-half of its business.
But late last year, Blackwater was still operating in Iraq without a license, supplying aviation services to the State Department on an informal basis, according to CBS News.
Eric Prince, an ex-Navy SEAL, started Blackwater in 2001. The firm quickly gained infamy during the Iraq War, providing security for diplomatic personal, while garnering a reputation for being overly aggressive and violent.
The U.S.-based mercenary firm is also being investigated by the United States Justice Department after it allegedly offered one million dollars in bribes to Iraqi officials following the shooting incident in Nisour Square.
The cash disbursements, allegedly authorized by top executives in Blackwater, were allegedly meant to silence government criticism surrounding the shootings and ensure that the firm would not lose its license to operate in Iraq.
Officials in the Justice Department launched an inquiry late last year to determine whether Blackwater employees were in breach of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits U.S. corporations from paying bribes to foreign officials, reported the New York Times.
The inquiry called attention to the contentious relationship between the U.S. government and the company. In North Carolina, a federal grand jury has already been investigating Blackwater’s actions since 2008. Bribery is not the least of the allegations leveled against the company.
A recent exposé on Prince and Blackwater in Vanity Fair magazine detailed accusations against the security firm, which included: the fostering a culture of violence against Muslims in countries that the company operates in; the smuggling of assault weapons into Iraq; and the affidavits of two ex-employees claiming that Prince and Blackwater may have murdered people suspected of cooperating in investigations of the company.
Separately, claims of the use of prostitutes — some of whom were alleged to be children — on Blackwater’s bases in Iraq also surfaced during the sworn deposition of an ex-employee of the company in 2009.
Despite its fraught relationship with Washington, the company and its subsidiaries still have contracts with the U.S. government around the world and are bidding for more, specifically in Afghanistan, according to a recently released State Department Inspector General’s report.
The company received no-bid contracts in Iraq, Afghanistan and post-Katrina New Orleans during the George W. Bush administration, but the extent and depth of Blackwater’s remaining contracts with the U.S. government are unclear.
Last summer, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta publicly acknowledged the agency’s involvement in covert operations with Blackwater, including a contract that allowed the firm’s employees to load missiles on Predator drones in Pakistan and the company’s participation in a now-defunct program to capture or kill suspected terrorists.
Eric Prince not only verified these claims in the Vanity Fair article, but also claimed to have once been a CIA asset himself.
Blackwater spokesperson Mark Corallo denied the company was ever under any contract to participate in covert operations with the CIA.
"Xe Services has only one employee in Pakistan performing construction oversight for the U.S. Government," Corallo said, adding that the company has "no other operations of any kind in Pakistan."
Late last year, a Pakistani Taliban suicide bomber killed seven in an unprecedented attack at a CIA base in Afghanistan. Two of the dead were Blackwater employees, again highlighting the close relationship between the intelligence agency and the security firm.
On Dec. 31, 2009, a federal district court judge dismissed charges against five former Blackwater employees, stemming from the Nisour Square killings. However, Vice-President Joe Biden said that the U.S. government would appeal the ruling and that he felt "personal regret" for the shooting.
According to Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, the court "rejected the case on form, and not on its merits," alluding to the judge’s pointed criticism of the Justice Department for building the case around inadmissible statements made by Blackwater employees.
(Inter Press Service)