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The Los Angeles Times

Blackwater Project Foes Hope For Backlash

Opponents are optimistic that the controversy in Washington will help derail the company’s training camp project near San Diego.

Tony Perry

San Diego - Opponents of Blackwater USA's proposal to build a training facility east of San Diego hope that the growing controversy over the private security firm's conduct in Iraq will help their drive to thwart the project.Protesters have planned a weekend rally.1004 05

Meanwhile, a local congressman has submitted a bill to block Blackwater's proposal to build the 220-acre camp in the unincorporated rural community of Potrero, 45 miles east of downtown San Diego near the Mexican border.

The proposal, now undergoing environmental review by San Diego County planners, is opposed by a coalition of environmentalists, property owners and antiwar activists. It could be months before the plan is submitted to the county's planning commission and Board of Supervisors.

On Tuesday, Blackwater's chairman was met with a blizzard of criticism from members of Congress while testifying before the House Oversight Committee.

Blackwater opponents in San Diego say the national controversy has brought needed attention to the Potrero proposal.

"The public hasn't really paid attention until this event," said Raymond Lutz, coordinator of Citizens' Oversight Project and "Finally, information about Blackwater is being discussed at the kitchen table."

Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) (D-Chula Vista) last week introduced a bill allowing to allow the training of "mercenaries" -- a term rejected by Blackwater -- only on property owned by the federal government.

The opposition to Blackwater's Potrero plan has brought together otherwise disparate groups: residents concerned about increased traffic and noise, environmentalists worried about the effect on rattlesnakes, deer and other wildlife, and longtime peace activists.

Carol Jahnkow, executive director of the Peace Resource Center in of San Diego, said the controversy over the violent actions of Blackwater bodyguards employed by the U.S. State Department in Iraq "underscores what kind of corporation they are."

"They're a corporation that puts profit above human life, a corporation that sees themselves as above the law," she said.

Although land-use disputes are common in local rural areas, here, the Blackwater dispute has reached an emotional pitch rarely seen. Three dozen sheriff's deputies and San Diego police officers were on hand during an April planning department "scoping session," in April, the kind of pro forma meeting that is usually sparsely attended.

A recall movement is underway aimed at members of the Potrero community planning group who voted to recommend to county officials that the proposal be approved.

The Potrero facility, on property now dedicated to chickens and cattle that is now farmland, would include firing ranges, an armory, a bunkhouse, administrative buildings and a "combat town." Blackwater officials have said they would use the facility to train their own employees but also would make it available for police departments and military units.

to train their personnel.

Anne Tyrrell, spokeswoman for the Moyock, N.C.-based company, said Blackwater was not altering its Potrero proposal in light of the controversy. Last week the company announced it has had dropped negotiations to buy land in North Carolina for a training site. That decision, Tyrrell said, was not a result of the controversy.

"It was not related to the news cycle," she said.

Blackwater officials have said that Potrero's proximity to San Diego County's military bases was one of the things that made it a desirable location. Among the San Diego those facilities is the Navy SEALS training base in Coronado. Blackwater Chairman Erik Prince, who testified before the congressional committee Tuesday, is a former SEAL.

© 2007 The Los Angeles Times

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