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Rice to Endorse More Oversight for Private Security in Iraq Print
Oct. 23, 2007

WASHINGTON —Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to endorse new recommendations to boost government oversight of private guards who protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq, a month after guards from North Carolina-based Blackwater USA were accused of killing Iraqi civilians.

A day after receiving the proposals from an independent panel, Rice was preparing Tuesday to order the implementation of those that can be taken unilaterally by the State Department, her spokesman, Sean McCormack said. Rice also plans to speak by phone with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, currently on an overseas trip, about those that will require joint action with the Pentagon, McCormack said.

Rice was briefed Monday on the findings of the panel she created in the aftermath of a deadly September 16 shooting in Baghdad in which Blackwater USA contractors are accused of killing 17 civilians in Baghdad.

The panel's recommendations broke down into three sections: actions already taken, steps that can be taken by the State Department alone and measures that need Defense Department coordination.

Earlier this month, Rice accepted several preliminary suggestions to improve oversight of security contractors, including having federal agents accompany Blackwater-escorted diplomatic convoys, installing video cameras in security vehicles and improving and recording audio communication between diplomats and the military.

The panel's final report found poor communication between diplomats and military officials and too little oversight of contractors like Blackwater, two people familiar with the report's findings told the Associated Press.

Its main recommendation, that the government impose unified control over private security guards in Iraq - had already been floated by Gates - and the panel strongly recommended that Rice coordinate her next move with the Pentagon.

Rice said late Monday she wanted to speak with Gates before moving to formalize the unified control recommendation but praised the authors of the review for their work and hinted she would endorse many, if not all, of their findings.

"The recommendations point a very good way forward," she told reporters. She provided no details but said she and Gates would "discuss how we will carry out better coordination, how we will make certain that the United States government moves this forward with one voice."

The panel, named by Rice in the wake of the September 16 killings, made no specific recommendations about what should happen to Blackwater, whose guards were escorting an official from the U.S. Embassy when they fired on civilians in a Baghdad square, those familiar with the report said.

The killings have outraged Iraqis and focused attention on the shadowy rules surrounding heavily armed private guards.

"There needs to be unity of effort so that whatever's moving in the battle space is coordinated, and it needs to be understood, especially, by the military out in that battle space," said one person familiar with the report.

Those familiar with the recommendations in the report spoke on condition of anonymity because Rice has not yet decided what changes she will make.

The recommendations would apply to management of all private security contractors in Iraq, and recognize that it is impractical to eliminate such protection altogether. The military has resisted assuming responsibility for guarding large numbers of U.S. officials, and the State Department's own security force is too small and already stretched too thin.

The group's closely held report also identified a gap that left private guards for diplomats in Iraq outside the direct control of U.S. civilian or military law, and outside Iraqi law, a U.S. official said. It was not clear whether the report recommends placing private contractors squarely under U.S. civilian law, but Congress has already acted to place such guards under military law when working for the Pentagon.

The Iraqi government is demanding that Blackwater be expelled from the country within six months and that its employees be subject to Iraqi law.
 
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