Blackwater USA chairman Erik Prince defended guards from his security firm, saying that they only responded to enemy fire in a deadly Sept. 16 shootout in Iraq. “We acted appropriately at all times,” he told a House committee looking into the use of security contractors in Iraq. Meanwhile, new details on the incident emerged from an Iraqi police investigation, raising the death toll to as many as 17 Iraqi civilians.

“Our government's use of private contractors in Iraq is so profoundly corrupt that frankly, few revelations at this point would shock us,” said the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in an editorial. Blackwater has paid victims’ families “hush money.” The State Department helped sneak one of the company’s guards out of the country after he shot and killed an Iraqi vice president’s bodyguard—while drunk. The FBI is “finally” looking into Blackwater, but we should have kicked our “addiction” to these mercenaries long ago.

This single incident has uncorked “a scalding gusher of animosity toward the private military industry,” said Max Boot in the Los Angeles Times (free registration). But Blackwater says its guards fired in self-defense, and “there is no reason to assume” that “the more damning version is true.” Some military contractors are too aggressive, but most “aren’t outlaws or cowboys.” If we can come up with “better safeguards to limit their abuses,” mercenaries can provide us with the muscle we need to “supplement the efforts of our overstretched armed forces.”

The muscle comes at too high a price, said Maureen Dowd in The New York Times (free registration). These “spooky” and expensive hired guns—employed by a firm that donated a fortune to Republicans before winning rich contracts in Iraq, by the way—“inflame Iraqis even as Gen. Petraeus tries to win their trust.” Using “Blackwater desperadoes” may help President Bush “slog on in Iraq,” but they’re “spreading a dark stain on America’s image.”

The U.S. isn’t just sloggin on in Iraq, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. We’re winning, because the Iraqis who stand to prevail are on our side. The U.S. has shown “immeasurable goodwill” by sending its soldiers to help fight the country’s enemies, and to “protect Iraqi schools, mosques and polling booths.” We’re winning because we’re fighting “to give Iraqis what they want.”

The “surge” of U.S. troops made Iraq safer, said Edward Joseph and Michael O’Hanlon in USA Today. But it hasn’t resulted in political reconciliation. The time has come to change strategies, and drop the goal of a strong, centralized Iraq. Instead we should do what Sen. Joe Biden and others have suggested, and push for a form of federalism or “soft partition” of the country.

No! Partition is a “last-ditch measure to consider when all else has failed in Iraq,” said The Dallas Morning News in an editorial. “We're not there yet and, hopefully, we'll never reach that point.” For now we should focus on keeping out “foreign fighters and bomb smugglers while Iraq's ethnic and sectarian leaders work out their differences.”