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House Approves Bill Making Iraq Contractors Subject to US Courts


Acting amid continuing controversy over a recent incident involving Blackwater, the largest American private security contractor in Iraq, the U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved legislation that would subject contractors to prosecution by U.S. courts. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol, a similar measure is expected to be introduced in the Senate.

Approved by a vote of 389 to 30, the legislation revises existing law called the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.

Aimed at strengthening accountability, it extends the jurisdiction of U.S. courts to include all contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq and in any other combat zones.

Currently, only U.S. federal employees and Pentagon contractors fall under U.S. court jurisdiction.

At the same time a law approved by the former Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq made private contractors immune from Iraqi laws.

The measure puts the Federal Bureau of Investigation FBI in charge of prosecuting crimes committed by contractors.

Approval comes after a lengthy hearing this week in which House lawmakers heard about nearly 200 shooting incidents in Iraq involving the U.S. - based security firm Blackwater.

In debate on the measure earlier this week, Virginia Democrat Congressman James Moran said it is needed to gain needed additional control over contractors in war zones.

"After talking with so many soldiers in Iraq and those who have returned from Iraq, it is desperately urgent that we do it, because things are out of control," said James Moran. "The fact is that many of these contractors, not all of them, but too many of them, are acting with impunity."

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating an incident in September involving Blackwater security guards who opened fire while escorting a U.S. diplomatic convoy, killing at least 11 Iraqis.

The head of the Blackwater firm, Erik Prince, defended the actions of his employees in a House hearing this week.

"Blackwater does not engage in offensive or military missions but performs only defensive security functions," said Prince. "My understanding [about] the September 16th incident is that the Department of State and FBI are conducting a full investigation but those results are not yet available. We at Blackwater welcome the FBI review, and will cooperate fully and look forward to receiving their conclusions."

The Iraqi government has said it will wait for the outcome of the U.S. investigation, although a government minister quoted by the Associated Press said Blackwater personnel involved should face trial in Iraqi courts, and the company should pay compensation.

Senate Democrats plan to introduce their own version of the legislation so a final bill can go to President Bush for signature.

Reacting to the House measure, a White House statement said it would have unintended and intolerable consequences for crucial national security activities and operations, although it provided no specifics.

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