US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered federal agents to ride with Blackwater USA escorts of US diplomatic convoys in Baghdad to tighten oversight after a shooting in which private guards were accused of killing 13 Iraqi civilians.
She also ordered video cameras installed in Blackwater vehicles.
The steps will require the US State Department to deploy dozens of additional in-house Diplomatic Security agents to accompany Blackwater guards and are the first in a series of moves Rice is expected to take to boost control of contractors the agency depends on to protect its diplomats in Iraq.
They are aimed at "putting in place more robust assets to make sure that the management, reporting and accountability function works as best as it possibly can," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
The measures, which also include recording radio traffic between the embassy and diplomatic convoys and improving communications between those vehicles and US military units in the area, were implemented amid intense criticism of the department's security practices in Iraq and Blackwater's role.
They also come as Iraqis and US lawmakers are clamoring for clarification of the now nebulous jurisdiction and authority under which the State Department's private security guards work.
On Thursday, the House passed legislation that would place all private government contractors in Iraq under US criminal statutes. The administration of US President George W. Bush has expressed concerns about the proposed amendments to existing law but has pledged to work with Congress on improvements before the Senate takes up the bill in the coming weeks.
In ordering changes, Rice accepted preliminary recommendations from an internal review board she created after the Sept. 16 incident in which Blackwater guards are accused of opening fire on Iraqi civilians in a main square in Baghdad.
McCormack did not say that previous practices lacked proper safeguards to ensure accountability, but said the practices could be enhanced for all the department's private security contractors, including Blackwater. The company, with about 1,000 employees in Iraq, is the largest of three private firms that guard US diplomats in the country.
The new rules will initially apply only to Blackwater details because the initial recommendations cover just Baghdad where the company operates. This could be expanded to include the other two firms, Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, which work in the north and south of Iraq, McCormack said.
The US has not made conclusive findings about the incident, though there are multiple investigations to determine what happened. The FBI on Thursday took control of what had been a State Department probe.
The orders issued on Friday were recommended by a separate commission that Rice set up to look into the Baghdad embassy's overall security practices. McCormack maintained they are not intended to imply that the other investigations have determined Blackwater employees may have violated procedures.
The panel is being led by Patrick Kennedy, one of the most senior management specialists in the US foreign service.
Kennedy has been in Baghdad for nearly a week. Rice had asked for a preliminary review by Friday.
McCormack noted that not all members of Kennedy's team were in Baghdad yet and stressed that Rice's decision to implement changes did not preclude further revisions to security policies.
Prior to Rice's orders, Diplomatic Security agents only accompanied US convoys on an "ad hoc" basis, McCormack said. Now, at least one agent will be in every convoy, he said.
It was not immediately clear how many more agents that would require, but McCormack said it would number in the "dozens." Department officials have refused to say how many Diplomatic Security agents are currently in Iraq, citing security concerns.
In addition, video cameras had not been previously mounted in convoy vehicles as a matter of policy and radio traffic had been monitored but not recorded by the embassy, McCormack said. Rice's orders also mandate that convoys have direct contact with tactical US military teams in their vicinity, he said.
"In case there is an incident, we will have an improved capability to ensure that we have all the possible information we can collect to determine exactly what happened," McCormack said. "And, we want to make sure that we have full connectivity, up and down the chain, with the military operating in the area."
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