Contractors in Iraq probed

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Members of a team dispatched by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have begun a review of the State Department’s security practices in Iraq following a shooting if Iraqis involving guards contracted by the U.S. Embassy, a spokeswoman said Monday.

The State Department probe comes as the FBI announced it will investigate the role Blackwater USA played in the Sept. 16 shoot-out in Baghdad that killed 11 Iraqis. Blackwater says its guards acted in self-defense after its convoy came under attack. Iraqi witnesses have said the shooting was unprovoked. A preliminary inquiry by the Iraqi Interior Ministry concluded that Blackwater guards fired without provocation.

Blackwater USA is an out-of-control outfit indifferent to Iraqi civilian casualties, according to a critical report released Monday by a key congressional committee.

Blackwater security contractors in Iraq have been involved in at least 195 “escalation of force” incidents since early 2005, including several previously unreported killings of Iraqi civilians, says the 15-page report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Blackwater has had to fire dozens of guards over the past three years for problems ranging from misuse of weapons, alcohol and drug violations, inappropriate conduct and violent behavior, according to the report.

The only punishment for those dismissed was the termination of their contracts with Blackwater, says the report, which uses information from Blackwater’s own files and State Department records.

Congressional Democrats are moving aggressively to tighten the reins on private contractors in Iraq.

The House will consider a bill this week by Rep. David Price that would make all contractors subject to prosecution by U.S. courts. This would close what he says is a dangerous loophole that leaves State Department contractors immune to prosecution.

In the Senate, lawmakers passed a $672 defense policy bill Monday that would require detailed administration reports on the government’s reliance of security contractors. The bill also would establish an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate waste, fraud and abuse in wartime contracts.

U.S. officials say private contractors play a crucial role protecting the embassy and its personnel, freeing up the military to fight insurgents. But resentment has built up among Iraqis against the aggressive tactics employed by some members of the largely unregulated industry.

The Blackwater allegations “have the potential to become a flashpoint in terms of Iraqi antagonism toward U.S. personnel, with wide-ranging implications for our mission and our troops,” wrote Price, D-N.C., in a letter to Rice.

“There is no question that the lack of clarity surrounding the legal options for prosecuting criminal acts has significantly undermined our efforts in Iraq,” he added.

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