blackwater_logo.jpgBlackwater Worldwide, the North Carolina-based private military contractor, is facing a multimillion-dollar fine from the State Department for shipping hundreds of automatic weapons to Iraq without the required permits.

But that hasn't stopped the controversial company from recruiting mercenaries for its newest service: protecting merchant ships from pirates operating off the coast of Africa.

"Billions of dollars of goods move through the Gulf of Aden each year," Bill Matthews, the company's executive vice president, said in a recent statement [pdf]. "We have been contacted by ship owners who say they need our help in making sure those goods get to their destination safely."

Blackwater plans to use its specially modified 183-foot ship, the McArthur, for the task. The company says having its ship and helicopters escort vessels is a safer option than arming merchant crews.

Earlier this month, McClatchy Newspapers reported that the State Department is preparing to levy a fine on Blackwater for illegally shipping hundreds of automatic weapons to Iraq, where some of the arms are believed to have ended up on the black market.

Also this month, U.S. officials informed 172 private firms providing security in Iraq -- including Blackwater -- that their personnel will lose immunity from prosecution under a new U.S.-Iraq security agreement set to take effect in January. There has been a growing push by Iraqis to life immunity since an incident last September in which Blackwater guards escorting a diplomatic convoy through Baghdad opened fire, killing 17 Iraqi civilians. A civil lawsuit has been filed over that incident by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Blackwater is the State Department's largest personal security contractor and has received $1.2 billion in federal contracts, according to the website