"Congress should not accept these allegations as truth until it has the facts," the former Navy Seal said.'Troubling' incidents
But Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California and the chair of the committee, said there were serious questions about Blackwater's performance and that the shooting on September 16 was just the latest in a number of "troubling" incidents.
"Is Blackwater, a private military contractor, helping or hurting our efforts in Iraq?" he asked in his opening statement.
A US congressional report has said Blackwater was involved in nearly 200 shooting incidents in Iraq over the past two years and opened fire first in most of them.
The private contractor in Iraq, hired by the US state department, has been the first to fire in more than 80 per cent of shooting incidents in which it has been involved according to the report.
"In 32 of those incidents, Blackwater were returning fire after an attack while on 163 occasions Blackwater personnel were the first to fire," Waxman said in a memorandum released on Monday.
Details of the shootings, from Blackwater's own reports, indicate involvement in an average of 1.4 shooting incidents per week since 2005.
In prepared remarks to the committee, Prince pointed out that 30 of Blackwater's contractors had been killed while protecting US diplomats and no other Americans have died under its protection.
Blackwater has nearly 1,000 personnel working in Iraq.No-holds barred probe
The hearing comes as debate continues over the role of private contractors in Iraq and whether the US government relies too heavily on outsiders to perform jobs traditionally done by the military.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state says she wants a no-holds barred probe into the affairs of Blackwater.
"I have been very clear with people that I expect it to be probing, I expect it to be a 360-degree look, and I expect it to be unvarnished from these outside experts and I'm sure it will be," Rice said of the investigation in an interview with the New York Post on Monday.
|"Is Blackwater, a private military contractor, helping or hurting our efforts in Iraq?" |
Henry Waxman, Congressman
The panel has agreed not to investigate the specifics of the September 16 shoot-out, but Waxman said that it was within the committee's right to raise questions about the company's overall performance in Iraq.
"Privatising is working exceptionally well for Blackwater," he said.
"The question for this hearing is whether outsourcing to Blackwater is a good deal to the American taxpayer."
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is, however, sending a team to Iraq to investigate Blackwater's role in the shooting, an FBI spokesman said Monday.
Richard Kolko, an FBI agent, said the state department had requested the FBI examine evidence in the incident.
|Prince said he supported moves to increase |
accountability of private contractors [AFP]
"The results of the investigation will be reviewed for possible criminal liability and referred to the appropriate legal authority," Kolko said.
Prince told the panel on Tuesday that he regretted the loss of innocent life.
"Every life, whether American or Iraqi, is precious," he said, but "based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone."
The oversight committee will also question senior state department officials to assess whether the growing use of military contractors is undermining US efforts in Iraq.
State department rules say Blackwater's actions should be defensive rather than offensive.
Waxman also highlighted an incident in which a security guard for Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq's vice-president, was killed by an allegedly drunken Blackwater contractor in December 2006.
The contract worker was then flown out of the country and faced no charges for the killing.
The state department's charge d'affaires recommended Blackwater make a "sizeable payment" and an "apology".
Tom Casey, a state department spokesman, declined to comment on Waxman's specific examples 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."
Later this week, the House of Representatives will consider a bill written David Price, a Democratic congressman, that would make all private contractors in Iraq subject to prosecution in US courts.
Prince said Blackwater USA supports the draft legislation and "believes that more can and should be done to increase accountability, oversight and transparency".