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US Defense Chief Expresses Concerns About Security Contractors in Iraq


U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has dispatched a fact-finding team to Iraq because he is concerned about the oversight of private security contractors in the country. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details from Washington.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says Secretary Gates began asking questions about the military's relationship with contractors after 11 Iraqis were killed in a shooting earlier this month involving the security firm Blackwater USA.

Iraqi officials have accused Blackwater security guards of opening fire and killing civilians, while the company says its employees, who were working for the State Department, were responding to an attack on an American diplomatic convoy.

Morrell says Secretary Gates has sent a five-man team to Iraq because he has concerns about the military's relationship with private companies that are providing security for the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies.

"He has some real concerns about oversight of contractors in Iraq. He is looking for ways to make sure we do a better job on that front," he said.

Morrell says the team will speak with top American commanders in Iraq and obtain additional information for Secretary Gates by the end of this week.

Morrell also says Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England has issued a memorandum to commanders spelling out the authority they have to ensure that private contractors comply with U.S. rules and laws.

The memo tells commanders they have the authority to ensure that the employees of all security companies are approved and trained to carry weapons and that none has unauthorized arms or ammunition.

Security contractors operating in Iraq are immune from Iraqi law, but Morrell says they are not exempt from the U.S. justice system.

"This notion that there are not authorities in place to deal with rogue contractors or contractors who are breaking the law is nonsense. We have the means to go after them through the Department of Justice. We have the means to go after them through military courts. Just because there has not been a prosecution brought does not mean the authority does not exist to deal with people who misbehave, who break the law," he said.

The Department of Defense says there are about 7,300 private contractors working for the Pentagon in Iraq. About 5,000 of them are guarding fixed sites of importance to the U.S. military or the Iraqi government.

Morrell says most of the contractors are in Iraq for patriotic reasons.

"I don't want to leave anybody with the impression that there is a bunch of renegades running around Iraq breaking the law. By in large these are very responsible, patriotic people who have come to Iraq, not just for the economic opportunity, but because they believe in the mission and believe in helping the Iraqi people build their government," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has ordered a full review of how private security firms are operating in Iraq. Both nations have formed a joint commission to review security operations.

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