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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top Blackwater executives authorized about $1 million (598,000 pounds) in payments to Iraqi officials to buy support and silence criticism of the private security firm after a deadly shooting in Baghdad in 2007, The New York Times reported on Tuesday.
In September 2007, Blackwater workers fatally shot at least 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square, an incident that provoked protests in Iraq and prompted the Iraqi government to deny Blackwater a licence.
Four former executives said in interviews that Blackwater approved the payments in December 2007 but they did not know whether the cash was delivered to Iraqi officials or the identities of potential recipients, the Times reported.
Blackwater's strategy, which would have been illegal under U.S. law, created a deep rift inside the company, the sources told the newspaper.
A spokesman for the company, now known as Xe Services, was not immediately available to comment on the report.
Two of the former executives told the Times they took part in talks about the payments. The two others said they were told by several Blackwater officials about the discussions.
The four officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they left the company because they were troubled by a pattern of questionable conduct by Blackwater, the paper reported.
The Times said Stacy DeLuke, a company spokeswoman, dismissed the allegations as "baseless" and said the company would not comment about former employees.
One Blackwater guard has pleaded guilty in U.S. court to voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter over the 2007 shootings, while five others are awaiting trial next year on manslaughter and other charges. The company denies wrongdoing.
Blackwater was a target of Iraqi anger even before the 2007 shootings because of its size, high profile and aggressive posture on the streets.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki branded the incident a "massacre" and complained when the U.S. State Department subsequently renewed Blackwater's contract.
The U.S. government said in September it had asked the company to continue providing security services to U.S. diplomats in Iraq because the firm hired to replace it was not ready to take over.
Xe Services, the former Blackwater, had been notified in January that its State Department contract in Iraq would not be renewed.
Privately held Blackwater earned more than $600 million in revenues last year -- about a third of that from its State Department contract to protect diplomats in war zones.
(Reporting by JoAnne Allen; Editing by John O'Callaghan)