Military to oversee armed contractors

State, defense secretaries agree

Iraq acts to withdraw immunity

October 31, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

WASHINGTON -- All State Department security convoys in Iraq will now fall under military control, the latest step taken by government officials to bring Blackwater Worldwide and other armed contractors under tighter supervision.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates agreed to the measure at a lunch yesterday after weeks of tension between their two departments over coordination of thousands of gun-carrying contractors operating in the chaos of Iraq.

Gates appears to have won the bureaucratic tug of war.

Military coordination of contractor convoys will include operations of not only Blackwater, formerly known as Blackwater USA, but also those of dozens of other private firms that guard U.S. diplomats, aid workers and reconstruction crews.

In Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki approved a draft law to overturn an order imposed by the U.S. occupation authority in 2004 that granted the employees of foreign contractors immunity from Iraqi law.

The draft law, expected to be presented to parliament in the next few days and passed overwhelmingly, is also certain to deepen tensions between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government.

Al-Maliki promised to push through the legislation amid public outrage over Blackwater's seemingly unprovoked killing of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad on Sept. 16, as well other Iraqi civilian deaths allegedly at the hands of foreign contractors.

Also yesterday, the State Department confirmed that some Blackwater employees questioned in the Sept. 16 shooting had been granted a form of immunity in exchange for their statements. However, officials insisted the immunity was limited and did not prevent the possibility of prosecutions.

Democrats in Congress complained that the State Department appeared to have bungled the investigation and said they feared that no one would be held accountable for the Iraqi deaths. "It feels like they're protecting Blackwater," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who has been critical of relying on contractors in Iraq.

At the Pentagon, Geoff Morrell, the chief spokesman, said the military would assert greater control over contractor training, rules for the use of force, employment standards and movements around Iraq.

He said that Gates and military officers in Iraq insisted on the new measures "so they aren't blindsided by contractors running in and out of their battle space and potentially causing problems."

Morrell and his State Department counterpart, Sean McCormack, said the details of the new arrangement had not been worked out but the process was on a fast track and both agencies hoped to have all issues resolved by Thanksgiving.

The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, has the authority to reject the arrangement, but he is likely to accept new rules that give his officers greater control over the numerous armed entities operating in his theater.

The State Department has had repeated problems trying to rein in the nearly 845 Blackwater guards in Iraq, who have fired their weapons 195 times since 2005, leaving an undetermined number of Iraqis dead. Blackwater and two other security companies, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy, share a multibillion-dollar contract to guard American diplomats and other civilians in Iraq.

But the Defense Department has had its own difficulties controlling its nearly 130,000 contractors, who handle a variety of jobs including interrogations of prisoners and transportation of fuel and ammunition. Auditors have uncovered numerous instances of cost overruns, sloppy work, theft and corruption in the tens of billions of dollars in logistics and reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

But for now, the focus is on a series of measures to bring greater accountability to private security contractors.

The State Department has announced several such steps, including assigning agents of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to accompany all Blackwater convoys, the installation of video cameras in all Blackwater vehicles and the establishment of a multiagency review board to examine all cases involving the use of force.

Although current rules are quite restrictive and allow force to be used only defensively, the standards have not been enforced and Blackwater guards, in particular, have a reputation for being quick on the trigger.

Morrell said that the new, more stringent rules would be likely to put the Blackwater operatives, and perhaps the people they are responsible for protecting, in greater danger.

"We want everybody operating for the sake of the same mission," Morrell said. "And that is winning the hearts and minds, the trust and confidence of the Iraqi people."

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