Video: Reports expose problems of Iraq’s hired guns

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    LESTER HOLT, anchor: There is more to report tonight on the war in Iraq based on hundreds of thousands of US military documents made public this weekend by the organization WikiLeaks . They shine a harsh new light in the role of security contractors in Iraq , hired guns who found themselves in high demand after the invasion. Here's NBC 's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel .

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: The Iraq war was supposed to be quick. The guidance was to go fast and light with relatively few American troops on the ground. But within a year an insurgency began, and Baghdad became the most dangerous city in the world. To fill the growing security vacuum, the US military , State Department and private companies hired thousands of foreign security contractors , most of them ex- American and British military . But quickly there were accusations the contractors used excessive force. The most notorious and public incident was in September 2007 when 17 Iraqi civilians were killed in Baghdad . Witnesses told us then the shooting was done by employees from Blackwater , a security company with extensive US government contracts. Blackwater , which has since changed its name to Xe Services , said its guards acted in self defense. But according to documents posted by WikiLeaks this weekend, the US military knew of at least several dozen incidents involving security contractors , including, in 2009 , two employees of British ArmorGroup were shot and killed by their own colleague. The suspect was detained by US soldiers . In 2006 , a demonstration broke out in Kirkuk after Blackwater employees allegedly shot two civilians. And in the same year US soldiers were told Blackwater guards killed an ambulance driver in Baghdad . The US government has launched numerous investigations into Blackwater and other security contractors , and has taken some punitive actions. Armor Group tells NBC News that it will not comment because of ongoing investigations, but called the incident "tragic" and the victims "valued employees." Xe Services told The New York Times it won't comment on specific reports, but is cooperating with investigations.

    But to military analysts the leaked documents raise a critical question: If the American military knew so much about the problems with contractors , why did US agencies continue to employee so many of them?

    General BARRY McCAFFREY, Retired (NBC News Military Analyst): The US armed forces are simply too small to conduct global operations without massive over-reliance on contractors .

    ENGEL: The Pentagon has said, Lester , that it is working overtime to reduce its dependency on foreign contractors . Lester :

    HOLT: Richard Engel in New York for us tonight. Thanks.

updated 10/24/2010 11:30:47 AM ET 2010-10-24T15:30:47

The enormous cache of secret war logs disclosed by the WikiLeaks website paints a picture of an Iraq burdened by persistent sectarian tension and meddling neighbors, suggesting that the country could drift into chaos once U.S. forces leave.

The reports, covering early 2004 to Jan. 1, 2010, help explain why Iraq's struggle to create a unified, independent state continues, despite a dramatic reduction in violence. They appear to support arguments by some experts that the U.S. should keep thousands of troops there beyond their scheduled departure in 2011, to buy more time for Iraq to become stable.

The threats described in the leaked documents come from outside, including next-door Iran, as well as inside, in the form of sectarian, political and even family rivalries that predate the 2003 American-led invasion and endure today.

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The reports demonstrate the weakness of Iraq's civic institutions, court system and military, even before sectarian violence exploded in 2006-2007.

In the fall of 2005, the U.S. military discovered evidence of plots to assassinate various officials, including an Iraqi Army colonel. In September, one of the war logs said, a group of judges was abducted in Balad, beaten and forced into the trunk of a car.

Another example: On June 6, 2006, U.S. forces reported discovering large amounts of blood on the floor, a rubber hose and electric wires rigged to a metal door in a holding cell in an Iraqi police station in Husaybah, in western Iraq.

Story: Mix of trust and despair helped turn tide in Iraq

The report called the discoveries "evidence of unchecked torture" and "clear indications" of human rights violations.

The U.S. report said that for a time, U.S. military advisers slept in the police station to make sure prisoners were not abused, checked arrest logs and counseled Iraqi police, warning them against these practices.

But even a program of training and counseling didn't put an end to the abuses. According to a report dated Feb. 16, 2009, U.S. forces reported the mistreatment of 33 detainees in custody at the same police station.

The Associated Press was given access to a redacted WikiLeaks database hours before its general release Friday, but was not provided the raw data. The documents appear to be authentic, but their origin could not be confirmed independently.

The leaked war logs reflect significant progress as well. There has been a dramatic improvement in security since the height of the violence in 2006-07, due to a weakened threat from al-Qaida and an Iraqi population weary of the sectarian bloodletting that once threatened to plunge the country into civil war.

Story: Growing use of contractors added to war's chaos in Iraq

Even so, some experts question whether the fledgling military and police forces are capable of defending Iraq after Washington completes its scheduled pullout Dec. 31, 2011.

Those who hold these pessimistic views also worry Iraq could repeat its history of turning to a military dictator in the mold of Saddam Hussein.

Ryan Crocker, ambassador to Iraq in 2007-08, said Washington has decided to turn the page on Iraq but must not close the book.

"We're still very much at the beginning of this story, or more to the point, the Iraqis are at the beginning of their new narrative in their history, and for all of the extraordinary achievements that we've seen, the list of challenges is even greater," he said Friday.

One major challenge is the country's political paralysis. Iraqi politicians are struggling to form a new government seven months after a national election failed to produce a clear winner. That's a symptom, to some, of the country's stubborn religious and ethnic schisms.

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Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's opponents said the WikiLeaks documents showed he must be stopped from consolidating power. Al-Maliki's office responded by saying the document leak was timed to sabotage his re-election hopes.

Crocker called it "profoundly important" that the U.S. maintain a military presence in Iraq beyond 2011, despite America's weariness with the long and costly war and pressure to shift more resources to Afghanistan.

The leaked documents posted by WikiLeaks recount Iran's role in arming and training Shiite militia groups and seeking to influence Iraqi politics — a concern that may deepen as American influence in Baghdad wanes.

In Crocker's view, Iraq will struggle for years with profound internal political and social problems. Meanwhile, he said, Iran is in effect telling Iraq: "Looks like the Americans are leaving, and guess what — flash news — we're staying."

Before the U.S.-led invasion, predominantly Arab Iraq was stronger militarily than Persian Iran, an old foe.

Today, due to the U.S. defeat of Saddam's forces and its dismantling of his army, Iran enjoys a vast numerical advantage over Iraq in battle tanks and other weapons of war. Iran is likely to keep that edge for years to come.

Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a frequent visitor to Iraq, said that it could be another decade before Iraq has an effective air force.

In 2003, Iraq had 2,200 main battle tanks, compared with 1,565 for Iran, Cordesman wrote in a new assessment of Iraq's military. Today, Iran's fleet of main battle tanks has swelled to 1,613 while Iraq's has fallen to 149.

By Cordesman's calculations, Iraq's security forces are going to be much less capable in December 2011 — when the last U.S. troops are scheduled to depart — than was planned when the Bush administration negotiated the withdrawal agreement just two years ago.


AP National Security writer Anne Gearan and Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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