The U.S. Departments of State and Defense are moving toward a new system to control the activities of security contractors working for the two departments in Iraq. The department secretaries met Tuesday to review the issue, and are expected to make a final decision next month. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says a joint working group has reached an understanding that would give more authority over security contractor activities in Iraq to the U.S.-led multinational command. But he indicated the plan would not put all the contractors under full Defense Department control. Morrell said he spoke to Defense Secretary Robert Gates after he had had a working lunch to discuss the subject with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"In talking with the secretary, he made it clear to me that the keys to whatever they come to, ultimately, agreement on must include a common set of standards, common rules for the use of force, and perhaps above all thorough coordination of all contractor movements well in advance," he said.
Morrell says the common standards would include a training requirement to give the U.S. military confidence that the contractors have the skills to fulfill their missions within the rules. He says all use of force in Iraq needs to regulated in the same way so it does not hurt what he called the "overall mission" of "winning the...trust and confidence of the Iraqi people." He says the new controls might mean more risk for the security contractors working for the State Department and protecting unarmed diplomats.
The current controversy over security contractors in Iraq stems from an incident in September in which guards from the Blackwater company protecting a U.S. embassy convoy fired on Iraqi civilians and killed 17 people. Blackwater says its men fired in self defense, but witnesses say the shooting was indiscriminate.
Since then, Secretary Gates has been working to find a new system that would provide greater control of the contractors, which Geoff Morrell says the evolving plan would do.
"One person, one entity, has got to know who's going where and when and what they're doing there," he said. "And, if it is unsafe or deemed not advisable to go there, someone is going to have the control to say, 'no, not at this time.' And as we envision that, as the common understanding of the working group has come to already, it would be MNF-I that would have that authority."
MNF-I is the multinational forces command in Iraq, led by U.S. General David Petraeus. Morrell says Secretary Gates will not approve any plan unless the general also approves it. Morrell says the joint Defense-State working group will visit Iraq next week to discuss the new arrangement with General Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.