General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Baghdad, have agreed on the details governing the operations of Blackwater and other private security contractors there, US officials said on Tuesday.
The agreement requires all State Department convoys in Iraq to coordinate their movements with the military's main operations center in Baghdad, sets minimum standards for training the contractors and outlines when armed guards can use force in self-defense.
The accord, which runs more than a dozen pages, fleshes out a broad understanding that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reached on Oct. 30 to bring Blackwater and other armed contractors under tighter supervision. Their deputies was expected to finalize the accord yesterday, aides said.
"It is a vast improvement on the oversight we had over private security contractors in Iraq," the Pentagon press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said in an e-mail message while traveling with Gates in Southwest Asia. "It will help ensure that all personal security contractors there are operating in a manner that is consistent with our mission to secure Iraq by winning the trust and confidence of its people."
A senior State Department official in Iraq added, "We've racheted up the level of coordination nationwide."
Gates directed Petraeus to report back in three months on how the accord is working, Morrell said.
One important issue the agreement does not address is the legal framework to prosecute any State Department contractors who violate the law. Federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas to some Blackwater employees present at a shooting in Baghdad on Sept. 16, when the company's security personnel killed 17 Iraqi civilians.
But some government lawyers have expressed concern that existing federal law will not apply to the actions Blackwater employees were accused of committing. The Senate version of the Pentagon's authorization bill, now in a conference committee, contains a provision that says private security contractors, if working in a combat zone, will be subject to Pentagon regulations, no matter which agency employs them.
The new agreement codifies arrangements that have been taking hold in practice since the Sept. 16 shootings.
The acting head of diplomatic security, Gregory Starr, told Blackwater employees last month about restrictions on the use of force for security teams protecting diplomats. He told Blackwater operators that "there needs to be clearer indicators" that an approaching car might hold potential suicide bombers before the contractors could open fire, according to a Blackwater employee who attended the Nov. 14 meeting in Baghdad.
Such indicators, Starr told the contractors, include cars that have a single driver but ride unusually low on their suspensions due to the weight of explosives.
"He wants us to assume more risks," said the Blackwater employee, whose account was confirmed by a State Department official.
Starr also said at the meeting that the State Department had not decided whether or not to replace Blackwater when its contract expires in May.
"He said Blackwater has not lost the contract here in Iraq, and that it entirely depends on our actions from here on out," the Blackwater employee said.
Starr also told the Blackwater employees that the Iraqis had warned him that more wrongful shooting incidents would force the Iraqi government to rescind a law that conferred immunity on private contractors.
The US government is also asking security companies in Iraq to develop a detailed ethics policy and training program by late December, said a US security manager in Baghdad.
"The government of Iraq is asking for more and more requirements from security companies," the security manager said. "This is a healthy sign. It shows that we are stabilizing the environment and that the government of Iraq is taking control."
But the new requirements, including visas and blood tests for all private security guards who enter Iraq, were creating frustration and some confusion among company managers in Iraq because there were no clear guidelines on how to fulfill them, the security manager said.
"Show me a document on how to get a visa: step 1, step 2," the manager said. "The military doesn't know. You ask them these things, and you get a shrug."
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