By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, Oct 1 (Reuters) - U.S. security contractor Blackwater has been involved in at least 195 shooting incidents in Iraq since 2005 and, in eight of 10 cases, their forces fired first, a leading U.S. lawmaker said on Monday.
State Department contractor Blackwater, under investigation for the shooting deaths of 11 Iraqis on Sept. 16, will answer questions about that incident and its performance in Iraq at a Congressional hearing on Tuesday.
Senior State Department officials will also be grilled by the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform examining whether the growing use of military contractors undermines U.S. efforts in Iraq.
Committee chair Rep. Henry Waxman, a vocal critic of the Iraq war, released details from Blackwater's own reports of multiple incidents involving Iraqi casualties. The memorandum also slammed the State Department's oversight of the company.
It listed 195 shooting incidents from the start of 2005 until Sept. 12 of this year, an average of 1.4 per week. Of those, there were 16 Iraqi casualties and 162 cases with property damage, the California Democrat said.
"In 32 of those incidents, Blackwater were returning fire after an attack while on 163 occasions (84 percent of the shooting incidents), Blackwater personnel were the first to fire," Waxman said.
State Department rules say Blackwater's actions should be defensive rather than offensive.
Blackwater, which has been paid a little over $1 billion by the U.S. government since 2001, declined to comment on Waxman's memorandum.
"We look forward to setting the record straight on this and other issues" when Erik Prince, Blackwater's chief, testifies before the committee, spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said.
Waxman criticized the State Department's handling of several incidents involving Blackwater and accused it of trying to get the contractor to pay off victims' families rather than investigate.
"It appears that the State Department's primary response was to ask Blackwater to make monetary payments to put the 'matter behind us' rather than to insist upon accountability or to investigate Blackwater personnel for potential criminal liability," said the memorandum.
In a shooting incident on Dec. 24, 2006, a security guard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi was killed by an allegedly drunken Blackwater contractor, who was then flown out of the country and faced no charges.
E-mail traffic from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad back to Washington described Iraq concerns over the incident.
"Iraqis would not understand how a foreigner could kill an Iraqi and return a free man to his own country," it said.
The State Department's charge d'affaires recommended Blackwater make a "sizeable payment" and an "apology." Waxman noted the State Department's diplomatic security said that was too much and eventually Blackwater agreed on a $15,000 payment.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey declined to comment on specifics listed by Waxman but said the department was "scrupulous" in its oversight of all contractors.
"These are tough jobs and these people often perform heroically in very difficult circumstances," Casey said. "But at the same time they have to be held accountable for their actions."
In another incident where Blackwater shooters killed an "innocent Iraqi," Waxman said the State Department requested only a $5,000 payment to "put this unfortunate matter behind us quickly."
Blackwater protects U.S. embassy convoys in Iraq and, along with two other contractors, DynCorp and Triple Canopy, has a worldwide security deal with the State Department.
Waxman said reports provided by Blackwater indicated the North Carolina-based firm was involved in more shooting incidents in Iraq than the other two companies combined.