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Rice Further Tightens Oversight of Iraq Security Contractors

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Tuesday ordered additional steps to increase oversight of private armed contractors protecting U.S. diplomatic operations in Iraq. The move is a further response to a September 16 incident in Baghdad in which employees of the security firm Blackwater USA guarding a State Department convoy are accused of killing as many as 17 Iraqi civilians. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice announced a series of steps to increase scrutiny of the contractors within days of the September 16 incident, which badly strained U.S. relations with the Iraqi government.

She has now added several more measures at the recommendation of a high-level panel she appointed at the time to fully examine the controversial role of the security firms.

State Department director of management policy Patrick Kennedy chaired the review panel, which included former NATO supreme commander General George Joulwan.

In a telephone talk with reporters, Kennedy said ranking State Department security officers will from now on be in command of all motorcades protected by the contractors, who are to receive Iraq cultural awareness training and be supported by Arabic speaking personnel.

There is to be enhanced coordination of convoy operations with both U.S. forces and local Iraqi police, tighter rules on the use of deadly force by the contractors, and more thorough follow-up procedures for lethal incidents that could lead to prosecution by the U.S. Justice Department.

Kennedy said terminating contracts with Blackwater, the largest of three firms doing security work for the State Department, was considered but was not among panel recommendations, though he did not rule out such a move later.

Officials say replacing the contractors entirely with U.S. military or diplomatic security agents is impractical given the numbers of personnel required.

There are about 700 security contractors working in Iraq and hundreds more in Afghanistan and other hazardous overseas posts. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says they will continue to be needed for the foreseeable future:

"Personal security contractors for the U.S. Government are a fact of life in Iraq as well as elsewhere around the world," said Sean McCormack. "And what we want to do is make sure that they operate in such a way that they're, at the very least, in no way detracting from the overall foreign policy and national security goals that we want to achieve in these places - Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world. And one would hope that their operations in support of what we do further our foreign policy interests."

Initial steps ordered by Rice included the installation of video cameras in security vehicles and recording audio communications between convoys and the U.S. embassy and military units.

Among the additional measures, State Department convoy vehicles will display identification numbers and their movements will be tracked and recorded by satellite.

In the event of incidents involving civilian deaths or property damage, a State Department team will work with local U.S. and Iraqi commanders and visit affected families to offer condolences and arrange compensation.

Rice has named senior diplomat Steven Browning, currently U.S. ambassador to Uganda, to serve temporarily as a senior adviser to Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on Iraq management and security issues.

The Kennedy panel was not empowered to examine the September 16 shooting incident, which is being investigated by Iraqi authorities and U.S. FBI agents.

Its lengthy report, made public Tuesday, said there has been poor coordination, oversight and accountability of Blackwater and other firms, which have won lucrative contracts but have been accused of using excessive force in scores of security incidents in Baghdad and elsewhere.