"Blackwater is our team"

Just how pervasive is the company's role in Iraq?

Published October 2, 2007 4:23PM (EDT)

How pervasive is Blackwater USA's role in Iraq?

On the one hand, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince is telling the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that his men work for the State Department and operate under rules of engagement that are much more restrictive than those that apply to U.S. soldiers.

On the other hand, Prince clearly sees Blackwater as an integral player in the U.S. war effort in Iraq, a player whose role goes far beyond protecting State Department employees on their travels. "We're part of the total force in trying to get the mission accomplished," Prince said a moment ago.

In addition to its contract work for the State Department, Prince said that Blackwater frequently comes to the aid of U.S. soldiers in trouble. He cited the example of Blackwater forces using Blackwater helicopters to "medevac" wounded troops out of battle zones, and he said that a U.S. Army colonel recently told him that his troops keep the radio call signs of Blackwater forces on their dashboards because they know that Blackwater will come running to the rescue if they find themselves under fire.

If the anecdote is true, it lends some support to one of the criticisms that has been leveled at the U.S. government's reliance on Blackwater: that by hiring thousands of private military contractors to work in Iraq, the Bush administration is maintaining a much larger military presence in the country than its public debates with Congress would actually suggest.

Committee chairman Henry Waxman said that if the United States doesn't have enough troops in Iraq, it ought to send more troops rather than doing it "on the cheap" with private contractors -- an alternative, he noted, that isn't anything like "cheap" in the first place.

The push-back from Rep. Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican: "Blackwater is our team. They are working in the trenches, and in a war zone." Suggesting that Democrats are playing for "their team" rather than "our team," Turner noted that committee members haven't complained about "the rules of engagement for al-Qaida and the insurgents."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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