Rice to boost oversight of contractors in Iraq

Tue Oct 23, 2007 7:33pm EDT


(Adds more details of measures)

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON, Oct 23 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday ordered tougher oversight of private guards in Iraq, including tighter rules on the use of force, following deadly shootings involving U.S. security contractor Blackwater.

The State Department said other measures included improved training and clearer rules of engagement, better coordination with the U.S. military as well as cultural sensitivity training for guards and more Arabic speakers.

Rice made the move following recommendations by a panel of experts she appointed to look into the work of private security contractors after the Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad that killed at least 17 Iraqis and enraged Iraq's government.

"Our key finding is that prompt measures should be taken to strengthen coordination, oversight and accountability aspects of the State Department's security practices in Iraq in order to reduce the likelihood that future incidents will occur that adversely affect the overall mission in Iraq," said the report by the panel, led by department official Patrick Kennedy.

Iraqis have complained vociferously about the role of private security contractors in Iraq and U.S. lawmakers have accused them of being trigger-happy and not accountable under either U.S. or Iraqi law for their actions.

North Carolina-based Blackwater, which employs about 1,000 people in Iraq, has said its guards responded lawfully to a hostile threat.

Kennedy told reporters there needed to be a better legal framework for contractors and the panel was unaware of any basis for holding non-U.S. Defense Department contractors accountable under U.S. law.

"We want there to be legal clarity here," said Kennedy.

Earlier this month, Rice ordered cameras be installed on convoy vehicles run by Blackwater and that diplomatic security agents accompany them on all missions taking diplomats out of the international zone in Baghdad.

A senior diplomatic security official said the cameras had not yet been installed as they were still looking at the best equipment for the job but diplomatic agents were accompanying each mission.

CLEARER RULES ON FORCE

Kennedy said the State Department would adopt more specific rules on how and when force could be used by contractors. In addition, the department's contractors would more closely follow U.S. military guidelines, which provided greater protections and safeguards.

"He or she must fire only aim shots, fire with due regard for the safety of innocent bystanders and make every effort to avoid civilian casualties," Kennedy said in a conference call.

When incidents involving the discharge of a weapon had occurred, the report said the "scope of investigation" had not been broad enough to ensure on-the-scene information was quickly gathered. Moreover, the U.S. Embassy's process for addressing incidents was insufficient.

Kennedy said there must be a team sent immediately to the scene of where a weapon had been fired. That team would comprise diplomatic and other U.S. staff, not the contractor.

In addition, an embassy review board should examine all incidents involving the use of deadly force and could refer cases to the U.S. Justice Department, said Kennedy.

U.S. officials needed to be more responsive to Iraqi customs and seek out the families of innocent civilians killed and offer condolences and compensation, he added.

The Sept. 16 incident is being investigated by Iraqi and U.S. investigators. The report said when the FBI investigation was completed, the U.S. Embassy must submit its recommendations as to whether the continued services of Blackwater were "consistent with the accomplishment of the overall United States mission in Iraq."

More measures are expected to follow after Rice meets Defense Secretary Robert Gates, probably later this week, to discuss how to improve coordination over private guards.



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