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US Defense Chief Wants More Military Control of Security Contractors in Iraq

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he wants to give the coalition military command in Iraq a larger role in coordinating the activity of private security contractors that operate in the country. He says that is among the suggestions from a five-member panel he sent to Iraq in the wake of the incident last month in which armed guards from the Blackwater company, protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Baghdad, allegedly killed at least 11 Iraqi civilians in a shootout. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Santiago, Chile, where Secretary Gates is visiting.

Speaking to reporters on his plane enroute from Colombia, Secretary Gates provided some details from the group's report, which he said he has not yet even had a chance to discuss with other senior Defense Department officials. He says the panel found that many of the thousands of security contractors in Iraq are working under contracts issued in Washington, and the Multi-National Force-Iraq command in Baghdad is not even aware of them.

"One obvious suggestion is, how do we give MNF-I greater clarity and more of a role, and knowledge about, the contracts that're going to be executed in their AOR [area of responsibility]," he said.

Secretary Gates says that has resulted in many distress calls from convoys escorted by contractors that were a surprise to the U.S. military units asked to help. "One of the units reports that about 30 percent of the calls for help for Quick Reaction Forces come from convoys that MNF-I doesn't know are out there," he said.

Secretary Gates says the panel recommends better coordination between the contractors and military commanders, the kind of cooperation he says could start with a meeting between himself and the heads of security companies that have forces in Iraq. He also says when contractors go beyond their authority or commit crimes, U.S. military commanders need to be more aggressive in their use of existing legal options to punish the contractors. That was the subject of a memo Secretary Gates' deputy sent to field commanders last week.

But at the same time, Secretary Gates said it is important to continue using security contractors in Iraq.

"If there were significant limitations on contractors doing security work, the two alternatives are either we have to use soldiers to do that or you have significantly less mobility on the part of the Department of State and the civilian side of the government, which is a huge component of what we're trying to accomplish in Iraq right now. So that would be, it seems to me, very counterproductive," he said.

The U.S. military is already stretched with about 165,000 troops in Iraq, and would be hard pressed for both logistical and political reasons to send more to replace contractors if they were barred from working in the country.

Although he has not yet discussed the panel's recommendations with other key officials, Secretary Gates says the ideas seem reasonable to him and he expects to implement them.