WASHINGTON (AFP) – Executives at US security firm Blackwater approved secret payments of about one million dollars to Iraqi officials to “silence their criticism” after company guards killed 17 civilians in Baghdad in 2007, the New York Times has said.
Citing interviews with four unnamed former Blackwater executives, the Times said the company’s president at the time, Gary Jackson, approved the bribes.
Money was sent from neighboring Jordan to their top company manager in Baghdad, but executives cited by the newspaper said they did not know if the funds were actually delivered.
One of the sources told the Times that officials at the Interior Ministry, where decisions over company operating licenses are made, were the intended recipients of the payments, which were aimed at quelling criticism and eliciting support.
The US State Department refused to renew annual contracts for Blackwater earlier this year after Iraq’s government banned it in January over the killings in Baghdad’s Nisur Square on September 16, 2007.
An Iraqi investigation found that 17 civilians died and 20 were wounded when Blackwater guards opened fire with automatic weapons while escorting an American diplomatic convoy through the square.
US prosecutors say 14 civilians were killed in the incident. Five former Blackwater guards pleaded not guilty at a federal court in Washington in January to manslaughter charges.
Blackwater chairman and founder Erik Prince did not dispute the existence of a bribery plan when he was confronted by Blackwater’s vice chairman at the time, Cofer Black, according to an executive familiar with their discussions on the matter, the Times said.
A spokeswoman for Blackwater, which renamed itself Xe after the Iraq government banned it, dismissed allegations of a bribery plot as “baseless.”
To replace Blackwater, the US State Department on March 31 awarded Virginia-based Triple Canopy a contract reportedly worth nearly a billion dollars to take over protection of US government personnel in Iraq.
The 2007 shooting focused a spotlight on the shadowy and highly lucrative operations of private security operations. Blackwater personnel were reported to earn as much as 1,000 dollars a day each in Iraq.
Foreign security teams in Iraq have long operated in a legal grey area, but under a military accord signed with Washington last November, Baghdad won a concession to lift the immunity to prosecution previously extended to US security contractors.
A report in the New York Times in April said that many of Triple Canopy company’s guards were likely to be former Blackwater employees.