Blackwater down, but controversial security company not yet out of Iraq

By Matthew Lee and Mike Baker
Associated Press / April 21, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Armed guards from the security firm once known as Blackwater Worldwide are still protecting US diplomats in Iraq, even though the company has no license to operate there and has been told by the State Department its contracts will not be renewed two years after a lethal firefight that stirred outrage in Baghdad.

Private security guards employed by the company, now known as Xe, are slated to continue ground operations in parts of Iraq long into the summer, far longer than had previously been acknowledged, government officials told The Associated Press.

In addition, helicopters working for Xe's aviation wing, Presidential Airways, will provide air security for US diplomatic convoys into September, almost two years after the Iraqi government first said it wanted the firm out.

The company's continued presence raises questions about the strength of Iraq's sovereignty even as the Obama administration urges the budding government to take more responsibility for the nation's future.

Iraqis had long complained about incidents caused by Blackwater's operations. Then a shooting by Blackwater guards in Baghdad's Nisoor Square in September 2007 left 17 civilians dead, further strained relations between Baghdad and Washington, and led US prosecutors to bring charges against the Blackwater contractors involved.

That deadly incident was the end, Iraqi leaders said. Blackwater had to get out.

But State Department officials acknowledge the company is still there.

The company declined to comment about a timetable for leaving. "We follow the direction of our US government client," Xe spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said. Last February, Blackwater changed its name to Xe - pronounced ZEE - in a bid to leave its controversial reputation behind.

Defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said Iraq's ability to enforce bans on companies like Blackwater may provide an early measurement of the strength of its internal sovereignty. As the Iraqi leaders gain more control, he said, the final exit for Blackwater will be inevitable. "Let's face it, they're not entirely their own masters yet," he said.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said that while Xe will not be allowed to work in Iraq, the company needs "some time" to fully shut down its operations there. The official did not give further details on the timetable.

The State Department's continued reliance on Blackwater also underscores the difficulties facing the US government in finding other options to protect its diplomats in dangerous areas.

Department officials said this month that Blackwater guards would stop protecting US diplomats on the ground in Baghdad on May 7, when the company's contract for that specific job expires and a new security provider, Triple Canopy, takes over.

Blackwater guards will remain on the ground protecting American diplomats in al Hillah, Najaf, and Karbala, all south of Baghdad, until Aug. 4, according to the State Department.

And Presidential Airways - which operates some two dozen helicopters - will continue to fly until Sept. 3, it said.

After the Nisoor Square deaths, Iraqi officials ruled that North Carolina-based Blackwater would be barred from operating in the country. Despite the ban, the State Department renewed Blackwater's contract seven months later, in April, 2008.