Blackwater's Iraq contract renewed despite ongoing massacre probe

The U.S. State Department has renewed its Iraq security contract with Blackwater Worldwide despite the FBI's still-unfinished investigation into last year's massacre of civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square by employees of the North Carolina-based mercenary firm. The deal, which was up for renewal on May 7, has been extended for another year.

The announcement came Friday during a press briefing with acting Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory B. Starr, who said:

One of the principal recommendations of the Secretary of State's panel review of the September 16th Nisour Square incident in Baghdad was that upon completion of the FBI's investigation, the Embassy would submit its recommendation on whether the continued services of Blackwater are consistent with the overall U.S. mission in Iraq. Until that time and after careful consideration of the operational requirements necessary to support the U.S. Government's foreign policy objectives in Iraq, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security requested the exercise of option year three of task order 6 beyond May 7th, 2008.

In essence, I have requested and received approval to have task order 6, which Blackwater has to provide personal protective services in Baghdad, renewed. And it is that simple.

Asked what would happen should the FBI find Blackwater criminally liable for the mass shooting, Starr replied:

We always -- we can terminate contracts with the convenience of the government if we have to. And if that was the decision, that we had to terminate the contract, we could terminate the contract.

Many Iraqis reacted to the news with anger, among them a traffic policeman assigned to Nisour Square who said the FBI questioned him in Turkey about the incident. The policeman, whose name was withheld for security reasons, told Reuters:

"I went to Turkey and testified about what I saw, but all my efforts were in vain when I heard the news..."

During the press briefing, when asked whether the Blackwater contract extension had the approval of the Iraqi government, Starr answered that the company is "operating with the concurrence of the Iraqi government." But Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki reacted with anger to the contract extension and said his government was not consulted. Reports CNN:

"No judicial action has been taken and no compensation has been made," al-Maliki said Sunday. "Therefore, this extension requires the approval of the Iraqi government, and the government would want to resolve the outstanding issues with this company."

(P.S. For more on this topic, check out today's Democracy Now! interview with journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.)