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Blackwater: Iraqi forces betrayed guards

Heavier guns and sturdier trucks would not have saved a team of Blackwater USA guards brutally killed in March 2004 after being lured by corrupt Iraqi forces into a well-planned ambush, the embattled private security contractor contends in a report to Congress.

This conclusion sharply contradicts the findings of a congressional investigation led by House Democrats and a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the families of the four slain guards. Blackwater is cast in both as an incompetent, penny-pinching outfit that sent an undermanned and poorly equipped detail through Fallujah, a known insurgent stronghold 40 miles west of Baghdad.

In the 10-page report, obtained by The Associated Press and delivered Tuesday to lawmakers, Blackwater -- which now calls itself Blackwater Worldwide -- says Democrats and the lawyer for the families have teamed up against the company for political gain.

Though it calls the deaths "a tragic event," Blackwater says the incident was unavoidable and the guards -- former Navy SEALs and Army Rangers -- understood the risks of their mission and could have refused to go.

"Stronger weapons, armored vehicles, ammunition or maps would not have shielded these brave military veterans from the certain death that awaited them on that morning," Blackwater says. "Even if Blackwater had placed six men on the mission, the result would likely have been the same."

This report runs counter to accounts from a second Blackwater team dispatched from Baghdad to travel through Fallujah that same day. The other Blackwater team, according to their after-action reports obtained by The News & Observer, protested going out undermanned and with no preparation or maps. The Blackwater office manager threatened them with losing their jobs if they refused to go, according to the April 4, 2004, report of squad leader Jason Shupe.

Blackwater's Tuesday report said that members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, swayed by sectarian influences, "intentionally betrayed" the guards -- a deception no amount of equipment, training or skill could overcome.

Blackwater does not say civil defense forces killed the guards, however. "Terrorists" were responsible for the murders, it says: "It was ICDC betrayal and enemy ambush -- not contractor incompetence -- that led to the deaths of four Blackwater personnel on March 31, 2004."

In a Sept. 27 report, the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee agreed the guards were ambushed by insurgents but said there was no evidence the civil defense corps participated.

No rear gunners

The Democratic staff report said Blackwater cut two guards from the Fallujah mission, leaving the team without rear gunners.

The Mitsubishi Pajeros that Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona, Michael Teague and Scott Helvenston were driving had armor plates behind the back seats but were otherwise just sport utility vehicles, the staff said.

According to Blackwater, as the convoy moved out of a Fallujah intersection, at least five assailants opened fire at close range with AK-47s. Two of the attackers held video cameras, the company says.

"The fact that the assailants were set to record the murders is further proof that there was a pre-existing plan at work," according to Blackwater.

The American guards never had time to fire a shot, the company says. "The ambush, apparently, was only intended to kill the Americans," Blackwater's report says.

Further evidence of foul play was the nearly four hours that passed before either the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps or Iraqi police began to investigate, according to Blackwater.

Travel in Iraq in unarmored vehicles was common, the company's report says, and Blackwater was not contractually bound to use armored carriers.

The use of a four-man team was "wholly acceptable" in Iraq at the time, according to Blackwater.

However, Blackwater's contract for the 2004 mission specifically cited the dangers of travelling through Fallujah and other Iraqi hotspots in requiring three armed men in each vehicle.

Daniel Callahan, the attorney for the families, is blamed in the report for urging a partisan probe of Blackwater.

The families of the slain contractors filed suit against the company in January 2005, saying Blackwater's cost-cutting measures led to the deaths.

The company's report cites a Dec. 13 letter to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who became speaker of the House three weeks later. In that letter, Callahan requested that Congress aggressively investigate Blackwater. He told Pelosi that the security contractor is an "extremely Republican" company that put safety behind its quest for war profits.

The lawsuit and the Democratic staff assessment have "striking similarities," Blackwater says.

"That's ridiculous," Callahan said Tuesday of any political motivations behind the lawsuit. The Fallujah killings "could have and should have been avoided" if Blackwater had properly equipped the guards as the company's Baghdad operations manager had urged, he said.

(News & Observer staff writer Joseph Neff contributed to this report.)

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