FBI takes lead in Blackwater investigation

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WASHINGTON, Oct 4 (Reuters) The FBI has taken control from the State Department of an investigation into the September 16 shooting incident involving security contractor Blackwater in which 11 Iraqis were killed, the department said tosday.

The State Department this week invited the FBI to join a diplomatic security team looking into the shooting incident, which enraged Iraqis and led to closer scrutiny of the use of security contractors in war zones.

''They are going to take the lead, the FBI,'' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. ''This is something that we had been discussing internally and with the FBI throughout this process. We thought it was the appropriate move,'' he added.

But this should not be interpreted as ''pointing in any particular direction'' in what had been uncovered so far, he said.

''We just thought it was appropriate for them to take the lead,'' he added.

Criminal charges have not been filed against North Carolina-based Blackwater, which has more than 1,000 security staff in Iraq protecting US embassy personnel under a State Department contract.

Usually, the private contractor would guard US officials visiting Baghdad, but the FBI said the US government would handle security for its agents in Iraq as they investigate the September 16 incident.

''To avoid even the appearance of any conflict, the FBI team deployed from Washington to assist the State Department in the investigation of the events of September 16th will have any additional security needs provided by US government personnel,'' FBI spokesman John Miller said in a statement.

The FBI declined immediate comment on other aspects of the investigation.

Blackwater, which has received US government contracts worth more than a billion dollars since 2001, is also under scrutiny over other shooting incidents involving Iraqis.

The Justice Department has been asked to look into the case of a drunken Blackwater employee accused of shooting dead a security guard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi on December 24, 2006. No charges have been filed in that case either.

A congressional report lists 195 shooting incidents involving Blackwater in Iraq from the start of 2005 until September 12, 2007, an average of 1.4 per week.

Blackwater fired first in 84 per cent of those incidents, according to the report prepared by the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

There are four separate investigations into the Sept. 16 incident, which occurred while Blackwater escorted a diplomatic convoy in Baghdad.

The State Department and FBI are looking into the incident, as are the Pentagon and a joint US-Iraqi team.

In addition, the State Department has appointed a panel of experts to examine the September 16 incident and conduct an overall review of private security contractors in Iraq. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to get an initial report from the panel tomorrow.

REUTERS AM KP2223

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