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Blackwater USA triggered a major battle in the Iraq war in 2004 by sending an unprepared team of guards into an insurgent stronghold, a move that led to their horrific deaths and a violent response by U.S. forces, says a congressional investigation released Thursday.

The private security company, one of the largest working in Iraq and under scrutiny for how it operates, also is faulted for initially insisting its guards were properly prepared and equipped. It is also accused of impeding the inquiry by the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The results of the staff inquiry come less than a week before Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL and Blackwater's founder, is scheduled to testify before the committee, which is chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a longtime critic of Blackwater.

The March 2004 incident involving Blackwater was widely viewed as a turning point in the Iraq war after images of the mutilated bodies of the four guards were seen around the world. Four days after the Blackwater guards were killed, a major military offensive, known as the Battle of Fallujah, began.

The combat lasted almost a month in Fallujah, which is 40 miles west of Baghdad. At least 36 U.S. military personnel were killed along with 200 insurgents and an estimated 600 civilians, the congressional investigation found.


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