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Damage to its trucks would show if insurgents attacked in Baghdad.
WASHINGTON - Blackwater Worldwide repaired and repainted its trucks immediately after a deadly September shooting in Baghdad, making it difficult to determine whether enemy gunfire provoked the attack, according to people familiar with the government's investigation of the incident.
Damage to the vehicles in the convoy has been held up by Blackwater as proof that its security guards were defending themselves against an insurgent ambush when they fired into a busy intersection, leaving 17 Iraqi civilians dead.
U.S. military investigators initially found "no enemy activity involved," and the Iraqi government concluded the shootings were unprovoked.
The repairs essentially destroyed evidence that Justice Department investigators hoped to examine in a criminal case that has drawn worldwide attention. The Sept. 16 shooting has strained U.S. relations with the Iraqi government, which wants Blackwater expelled from the country. It also has become a flash point in the debate over whether contractors are immune from legal consequences for their actions in a war zone.
Blackwater's four armored vehicles were repaired or repainted within days of the shooting, and before FBI teams went to Baghdad to collect evidence, people close to the case said. The work included repairs to a damaged radiator that Blackwater says is central to its defense.
The damage and subsequent repairs were described to the Associated Press by five people familiar with the case who discussed it in separate interviews over the past month. All spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
The repair work creates a hurdle for prosecutors as they consider building a case against any of the 19 guards in the Sept. 16 convoy. It also makes it harder for Blackwater to prove its innocence as it faces a grand jury investigation and multiple lawsuits. The company is the target, too, of an unrelated investigation into whether its contractors smuggled weapons into Iraq.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said any repairs "would have been done at the government's direction." Blackwater's contract with the State Department requires that the company maintain its vehicles.
The State Department would not comment on whether it ordered the repairs to the vehicles involved in the shooting.
[Last modified January 13, 2008, 01:20:37]