Rice to boost oversight of contractors in Iraq

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WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered tougher oversight of private guards in Iraq, including tighter rules on the use of force, following deadly shootings involving US security contractor Blackwater.

The State Department said other measures included improved training and clearer rules of engagement for private security guards and better coordination with the US military as well as cultural sensitivity training for contractors and more Arabic speakers, the State Department said yesterday.

Rice made the move following recommendations by a panel of experts she appointed to look into the work of private security contractors after the September 16 shooting incident in Baghdad that killed at least 17 Iraqis and enraged Iraq's government.

''Our key finding is that prompt measures should be taken to strengthen coordination, oversight and accountability aspects of the State Department's security practices in Iraq in order to reduce the likelihood that future incidents will occur that adversely affect the overall mission in Iraq,'' said the report by the panel, led by State Department official Patrick Kennedy.

Iraqis have complained vociferously about the role of private security contractors in Iraq and US lawmakers have accused them of being trigger-happy and not accountable under either US or Iraqi law for their actions.

Earlier this month, Rice ordered that cameras be installed on convoy vehicles run by Blackwater and that diplomatic security agents accompany them on all missions out of the international zone in Baghdad.

A senior diplomatic security official said the cameras had not yet been installed as they were still looking at the best equipment for the job but that diplomatic agents were accompanying each mission.

Kennedy said the State Department would adopt more specific rules on how and when force could be used by contractors.

In addition, the department's contractors would more closely follow the US military's guidelines, which provided greater protections and safeguards, he said.

''He or she must fire only aim shots, fire with due regard for the safety of innocent bystanders and make every effort to avoid civilian casualties,'' Kennedy said in a conference call.

When incidents involving the discharge of a weapon occurred, the report said the ''scope of investigation'' had not been broad enough to ensure on-the-scene information was quickly gathered. Moreover, the US Embassy's process for addressing incidents was insufficient.

Kennedy said there needed to be a better legal framework for contractors, adding the panel was unaware of any basis for holding non-US Defense Department contractors accountable under US law.

''We want there to be legal clarity here,'' said Kennedy.

Reuters AK VP0440

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