Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 2 prior to testifying before the House Oversight Committee hearing examining the mission and performance of Blackwater in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Susan Walsh / The Associated Press)
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The founder of Blackwater USA on Tuesday vigorously defended his private security company, saying 30 of its contractors have been killed while working to defend U.S. diplomats in Iraq and that no Americans have died while in its protection.
"There is no better evidence of the skill and dedication of these men," Erik Prince said in remarks prepared for a congressional hearing and obtained by The Associated Press.
He disputed a congressional report's finding that Blackwater is an out-of-control outfit that's indifferent to Iraqi civilian casualties. And he maintained that his guards were responding to hostile fire when they engaged in a Sept. 16 shootout while protecting a U.S. convoy. Eleven Iraqis died as a result of that incident. Prince's contention about the nature of the gunfire exchange is hotly disputed by witnesses and the Iraqi government.
"To the extent there was loss of innocent life, let me be clear that I consider that tragic," Prince said in his prepared opening statement to the congressional panel. "Every life, whether American or Iraqi, is precious." But, he added, "based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone."
On Monday, the FBI opened an investigation of the Sept. 16 incident, the latest fatal shootings in Iraq involving Blackwater guards. The FBI team was sent at the request of the State Department and its findings will be reviewed for possible criminal liability.
Blackwater, founded in 1997 by Prince and headquartered in Moyock, N.C., is the largest of the State Department's three private security contractors. The others are Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, both based in Washington's northern Virginia suburbs.
Blackwater has had more shooting incidents than the other two companies combined, according to a report written by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ahead of Tuesday's hearing.