RALEIGH, N.C. — The U.S. government is investigating whether private military contractor Blackwater USA, blamed for the deaths of 11 Iraqis in Baghdad on Sunday, has been shipping automatic weapons and military goods to Iraq without a license.
Two former Blackwater employees have pleaded guilty in Greenville, N.C., to weapons charges and are cooperating with federal officials who are investigating Blackwater, which is based in the tiny town of Moyock in the northeastern corner of North Carolina.
Two sources familiar with the investigation said that prosecutors are looking at whether Blackwater lacked permits for dozens of automatic weapons used at its training grounds in Moyock. The investigation is also looking into whether Blackwater was shipping weapons, night-vision scopes, armor, gun kits and other military goods to Iraq without the required permits.
A former Blackwater employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the investigation includes a look at whether Blackwater shipped weapons from its Moyock headquarters to Iraq hidden in pallets wrapped tightly in shrink wrap.
Blackwater, which guards the U.S. ambassador and other State Department personnel in Iraq, had its license to operate in Iraq suspended this week after Sundays shooting at a busy Baghdad intersection. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has said he favors barring the company permanently, calling the shooting cold-blooded.
But the company apparently was back working on Friday as U.S. diplomats resumed limited trips outside the Green Zone after a three-day hiatus. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said she couldnt comment on security matters but that it was likely that Blackwater was providing security escorts for diplomats who were allowed outside the Green Zone on essential missions only.
An Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman said the case had been referred to a magistrate to determine if criminal charges should be filed. Abdel Karim Khalaf said evidence collected in the case includes videotape from nearby cameras that contradicts Blackwater claims that its guards had been fired on and were returning fire in self-defense in Sundays incident.
The State Department relies on Blackwater to protect its employees. The company deploys about 1,000 contractors as bodyguards for the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats in Iraq.
Blackwater couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
The investigation into Blackwater's weapons shipments is noteworthy because Congress and the Iraqi government have criticized the company for acting with impunity in Iraq. One of its contractors, for example, shot and killed the Iraqi vice president's security guard on Christmas Eve in Baghdad. Blackwater sent the employee back to the U.S. and fired him. He hasn't been charged in the U.S. or Iraq.
The U.S. weapons-smuggling investigation was mentioned in a letter sent Tuesday to State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard by Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who for years has been investigating wrongdoing by private contractors in Iraq.
Waxman didnt name Blackwater but charged that Krongard, the State Department's top watchdog, was impeding an investigation "into whether a large private security contractor working for the State Department was illegally smuggling weapons into Iraq."
Waxman said that when Krongard heard about the criminal investigation, he sent an e-mail ordering his investigative staff to stop work until federal prosecutors in North Carolina could brief him. Krongard delayed the briefing for weeks, then assigned a member of his congressional and media staff, instead of an investigator, to the case, Waxman said.
Krongard disputed the charges in a statement.
"I made one of my best investigators available to help assistant U.S. attorneys in North Carolina in their investigation into alleged smuggling of weapons into Iraq by a contractor," he said.
The prosecutors, James Candelmo of Raleigh and John Barrett of Greenville, did not return phone calls for comment.
In December, the prosecutors obtained guilty pleas from two former Blackwater employees, Kenneth Wayne Cashwell of Virginia Beach, Va., and William Ellsworth "Max" Grumiaux of Clemmons, N.C. The men and their lawyers either refused to comment or did not return calls.
The court files are stingy on details of the crimes: The men each pleaded guilty in January to possessing stolen firearms shipped in interstate or foreign commerce. Barrett, the prosecutor, has twice delayed the men's sentencing because they're helping the ongoing investigation.
While the federal investigation of Blackwater is proceeding behind closed doors, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Waxman chairs, has been pressing its investigation of Blackwater and other private contractors.
Blackwater first came to the public's attention in March 2004, when a mob dragged the bodies of four slain Blackwater contractors through the streets of Fallujah.
The men had gone into Fallujah without maps, armor and with fewer men than their contract called for, according to contracts and reports detailed in stories by The News & Observer in Raleigh. Blackwater was working as the bottom layer of a series of subcontractors that ultimately reported to contracting giant Halliburton.
In December, the U.S. Army ordered Halliburton to refund the Army $20 million because it had no permission to use Blackwater for its missions.
The House Oversight Committee has requested that Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, testify at a hearing on Oct. 2.
(Neff reports for the (Raleigh) News & Observer. McClatchy Washington correspondents Marisa Taylor, Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
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