Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Friday ordered tighter oversight of private security firms working for the State Department in Iraq in the aftermath of the lethal shooting incident last month in Baghdad involving the contractor Blackwater USA. From now on, State Department security officers will ride along on all diplomatic convoys guarded by Blackwater. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The September 16 incident, in which Blackwater contractors protecting a convoy reportedly killed at least 11 Iraqi civilians, is the subject of multiple investigations including a joint U.S.-Iraqi inquiry.
But aides say Rice is not waiting for results from those probes and has decided to send dozens of additional State Department security agents to Iraq to oversee Blackwater's operations.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that the security agents, who are sworn U.S. law enforcement officers, will ride along on all American diplomatic convoys escorted by Blackwater in Baghdad.
Until now the agents had joined the convoys only occasionally.
In addition, video equipment will be installed on convoy vehicles to record any security incidents, and radio transmissions from the convoys to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad's fortified international zone will be tape-recorded to further document disputed cases.
Rice also called for increased communication between the privately-protected convoys and U.S. military forces operating in the area.
In a talk with reporters, McCormack said the steps taken by Rice are preliminary, and that further operational changes could be recommended by experts she has tasked to examine the issue including retired U.S. Army General George Joulwan, a former NATO commander, and retired senior diplomat Stapleton Roy.
"She believes that in taking these steps it does nothing to prejudice any recommendations that they may have down the road in terms of the bigger picture," he said. "So she had in mind A. - if there are initial things we can do to improve operations, she's going to take them. But B. - she also wants to do those things in such a way that they don't box-in any of the outside reviewers in terms of going down a certain pathway."
The September 16 incident was the most serious of nearly 60 cases of gunfire involving Blackwater contractors in Iraq this year, and it severely strained U.S. relations with the Baghdad government.
Iraqi officials have alleged that Blackwater agents fired indiscriminately at civilians, while the North Carolina-based Blackwater company contends its employees acted appropriately in response to an attack on the convoy.
The State Department said earlier this week the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken over its inquiry into the incident to assure the objectivity of the probe, and to allow for the possibility that it might lead to the prosecution of Blackwater agents or others by the Justice Department.
Blackwater USA, one of three private security firms employed by the State Department in Iraq, reportedly has about 1,000 employees in that country under U.S. government contracts worth more than a billion dollars.