The troubled Blackwater era ends in Iraq on Thursday as another firm takes over the once-dominant company’s security services contract in Baghdad.
Triple Canopy, a Herndon, Virginia-based company, picks up the expiring contract of Blackwater, which changed its name to Xe a few months ago. The State Department decided in January to not renew Blackwater/Xe’s contract. That followed a refusal by the Iraqi government to renew the firm’s operating license because of a September 2007 shooting in which the Iraqi government says security guards — then employed by Blackwater — killed 17 Iraqi civilians. As part of a contract to protect American diplomats and other employees around the world, the State Department hired Blackwater for a multi-year assignment in Iraq, renewable once a year. Blackwater/Xe, one of three security firms working for the United States, had one of the biggest security contracts in Iraq, providing security for the sprawling U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Triple Canopy already had a State Department contract in Iraq, but the new contract increases its share of the security work. DynCorp International also has a State Department contract for work in Iraq. Losing the contract is considered a huge blow to Blackwater/Xe. While the company is privately held, the Iraq contract has been estimated to make up one-third to one-half of its business. Blackwater/Xe has about two dozen aircraft in Iraq, as well as 1,000 personnel. Despite the loss, the company continues to hold other contracts with the State Department to protect American diplomats elsewhere in the world. The company’s founder, Eric Prince, resigned as head of the business in March. Five former Blackwater security guards pleaded not guilty in January to charges of voluntary manslaughter and other serious crimes stemming from their involvement in the September 16, 2007, incident in a Baghdad square. A sixth former security guard has pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. Blackwater says its employees were returning fire after they were attacked by armed insurgents, but an Iraqi investigation concluded that the guards randomly fired at civilians without provocation. The Iraqi government says 17 civilians were killed, although the indictment alleges 14 died. The company does not face any charges. But the Baghdad incident exacerbated the feelings of many Iraqis that private American security contractors have operated since 2003 with little regard for Iraqi law or life. The indictment of the five men represents the first prosecution of non-Defense Department contractors under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. The act was amended in 2004 to allow the Justice Department to prosecute such personnel providing services “in support of the mission of the Department of Defense overseas.” Last year, the State Department renewed Blackwater’s contract over strong objections from the Iraqi government. Starting January 1, the Iraqi government has mandated that all contractors obtain Iraqi licenses to operate.