WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday ordered an overhaul of the State Department's private security operations, requiring more explicit rules on the use of deadly force by Blackwater Worldwide and other contractors as well as increased language and cultural training.
Rice's instructions were a response to a rising tide of deadly incidents involving Blackwater, culminating in a Sept. 16 melee in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.
In a bluntly worded report released Tuesday, a review panel said that insufficient oversight of private security contractors has "undermined confidence" in those contractors among Iraqis and U.S. military commanders.
The panel, which Rice had dispatched to Iraq, recommended urgent steps to make security contractors accountable under U.S. law, saying it was "unaware of any basis" for doing so currently.
But the panel didn't recommend getting rid of private security contractors who guard U.S. diplomats, saying that the U.S. military doesn't want the mission and that the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service is too small to do the job.
The report was largely silent on the future of Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater, whose aggressive operations have put it in under the spotlight. But it hinted that Blackwater's days are numbered. It said simply that after an FBI investigation of the Sept. 16 incident is complete, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad "should submit its recommendation as to whether the continued services of the contractor involved is consistent with accomplishment of the overall United States mission in Iraq."
A Blackwater spokeswoman said she hadn't seen the report and that the company would have no comment.
U.S. military officers and some lawmakers complain that the private military contractors' operating methods have undercut commanders' counterinsurgency strategy, which hinges on winning over the Iraqi populace.
"The whole goal here is to protect diplomats without having any adverse effect on the political dynamic there," said senior State Department official Patrick Kennedy, who led the review panel.
Chief among the recommendations Rice accepted was imposing more explicit guidelines for how private security guards use deadly force to protect U.S. diplomats traveling in convoys in Baghdad and other cities.
Contractors will be required to fire only "aim shots," that is, at a specific target, as opposed to shooting indiscriminately, as Blackwater employees are alleged to have done on Sept. 16; they must take into account the safety of bystanders; and they must act to minimize civilian casualties, Kennedy said in a telephone conference with reporters. The guidelines are copied from those the Defense Department uses with its private contractors, Kennedy said.
The panel also recommended:
_ That contractors hire a small number of Arabic speakers.
_ Increased cultural awareness training for contractors to familiarize them with Iraqi culture and with U.S. military and diplomatic operations.
_ A new high-level U.S. Joint Incident Review Board to review all cases in which the use of force causes injury or death.
_ Faster compensation to the families of Iraqis who are injured or killed by contractor operations. The State Department's provision of payments, which are expected in Iraqi culture, "is not as responsive or timely as that of the U.S. military," the panel wrote in its 12-page report.
_ Technical and operational changes to track convoy movements and record their operations, some of which Rice approved earlier this month. Among them is the establishment of a standing "Go Team," which would go immediately to the site of an incident to gather information and write a report.
One State Department official expressed concern Tuesday that the stricter rules on using force could mean an increased likelihood that U.S. diplomats would be killed or injured by Iraqi insurgents. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
But Kennedy said, "There is no plan to denigrate safety."
Blackwater founder Erik Prince frequently boasts that none of the company's civilian protectees in Iraq has been killed or injured. Two other contractors, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy, also provide personal security details for the State Department in Iraq.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that some of the panel's recommendations can't be implemented until Rice confers with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Gates has publicly criticized contractor actions and has pressed for all private security contractors in Iraq to be put under unified control.
The panel's report doesn't go that far, but it calls for increased coordination between the State Department's Regional Security Officer and the U.S.-led military command in Iraq.
But the report gives credence to some of the military's complaints, saying the U.S. Embassy needs to share information more widely with the Multinational Force-Iraq.
Rice has faced intense criticism from Capitol Hill in recent weeks over the State Department's management of its presence in Iraq, including the troubled construction of the massive U.S. Embassy there.
She announced Tuesday that she'd appointed Steven A. Browning to be a senior adviser to Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on Iraq management issues. Browning, whose appointment is temporary, is the U.S. ambassador to Uganda.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007