Condoleezza Rice Orders Team to Iraq to Review Blackwater Security
NEW YORK – The United States and Iraq are focusing on five incidents where Blackwater USA guards killed civilians in Iraq this year as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered a high-level review board to Baghdad, U.S. officials said.
The United States has not made conclusive findings about the five incidents, including the Sept. 16 deaths of at least 11 Iraqis, and a State Department official said Friday that investigators are not aware of any others.
The five, plus another incident that apparently result in any killings, were previously identified by Iraqi authorities. For now, those incidents are at the core of the review ordered by Rice last week, a State Department official said.
Separately, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has sent a fact-finding team of his own to Baghdad to investigate conditions involving private contractors working for the Pentagon and to consult with military officers there.
The State Department official said: "The Iraqis have pointed to five they have concerns about. Obviously those are five instances where they'll be looked at by the (Rice) commission, they'll be looked at by the various groups reviewing it."
The United States is conducting several inquiries spawned by the deadly Baghdad shooting this month involving the private security contractor that protects U.S. diplomats and others in Iraq.
The Sept. 16 killings outraged many Iraqis, who have long resented the presence of armed Western security contractors, considering them an arrogant mercenary force that abuses Iraqis in their own country.
The broad review ordered by Rice will begin in earnest next week, when investigators including outside diplomatic, military and security experts arrive in Baghdad.
The State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the inquiries are in progress, also said that a retired veteran diplomat, Stapleton Roy, will help lead the diplomatic review, along with a former State Department and intelligence official, Eric Boswell.
Led by Patrick Kennedy, one of the most senior management experts in the U.S. foreign service, the panel will present an interim report by Oct. 5, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday.
Blackwater is the largest of three private companies contracted by the State Department to provide security for U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
Iraq's Interior Ministry has said Blackwater has been implicated in six other incidents over the past seven months, including a Feb. 7 shooting outside Iraqi state television in Baghdad, when three TV building guards were fatally shot.
Other incidents include a Sept. 9 shooting in front of Baghdad's municipality, when five people were killed and 10 wounded, and a Sept. 12 shooting that wounded five on the capital's Palestine Street.
The others were a Feb. 4 shooting near the Foreign Ministry when Iraqi journalist Hana al-Ameedi died, a May shooting by a gas station near the Interior Ministry that claimed the life of a passer-by, and a Feb. 14 incident when the company's contractors allegedly smashed windshields by throwing bottles of ice water at cars.
U.S. officials have said the water bottle incident was not fatal.
Kennedy's team will "begin establishing some baseline set of facts about these contractor operations" and report back to Rice, McCormack said.
He quoted Rice as saying she wanted Kennedy's assessment to "be 360 (degrees), to be serious, and to be really probing."
His announcement was posted to the State Department's new Internet blog, "Dipnote," (www.blogs.state.gov). He then confirmed the comments to The Associated Press.
Witness accounts of the Sept. 16 incident vary widely.
American witnesses, including the Blackwater guards, insist the convoy was attacked before the protective detail opened fire while Iraqi witnesses say the gunshots were unprovoked.
To straighten out the details, the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, to which Blackwater reports, is conducting one probe. Iraqi authorities are conducting another.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi commission has been created to try to come up with a common set of facts about the incident and look at ways to clarify the regulations under which private security guards operate in Iraq.
Kennedy's review is broader and will look beyond the Sept. 16 incident to assess what general changes need to be made to the State Department's security program, including the rules of engagement that govern private contractors.