A confrontation between the U.S. military and the State Department is unfolding over the involvement of Blackwater USA in the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad square Sept. 16, bringing to the surface long-simmering tensions between the military and private security companies in Iraq, according to U.S. military and government officials.
In high-level meetings over the past several days, U.S. military officials have pressed State Department officials to assert more control over Blackwater, which operates under the department's authority, said a U.S. government official with knowledge of the discussions. "The military is very sensitive to its relationship that they've built with the Iraqis being altered or even severely degraded by actions such as this event," the official said.
"This is a nightmare," said a senior U.S. military official. "We had guys who saw the aftermath and it was very bad. This is going to hurt us badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib, and it comes at a time when we're trying to have an impact for the long term." The official was referring to the prison scandal that emerged in 2004 in which some U.S. soldiers tortured and abused Iraqis.
In last week's incident, Blackwater guards shot into a crush of cars, killing at least 11 Iraqis and wounding 12. Blackwater officials insist their guards were ambushed, but witnesses have described the shooting as unprovoked. Iraq's Interior Ministry has already concluded that Blackwater was at fault.
Anger and concern
In interviews involving a dozen U.S. military and government officials, many expressed anger and concern over the shootings in Nisoor Square, in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood. Some worried it could undermine the military's efforts to stabilize Iraq this year with an offensive involving thousands of reinforcements.
"This is a big mess that I don't think anyone has their hands around yet," said another U.S. military official. "It's not necessarily a bad thing these guys are being held accountable. Iraqis hate them, the troops don't particularly care for them, and they tend to have a 'know-it-all' attitude, which means they rarely listen to anyone -- even the folks that patrol the ground on a daily basis."
Most officials spoke on condition of anonymity because there are at least three ongoing investigations of Blackwater's role in the shootings. There are also sensitive discussions between various U.S. agencies and the Iraqi government over the future of Blackwater and other private security firms in Iraq.
A State Department official asked why the military is shifting the question to State "since the DOD has more Blackwater contractors than we do, including people doing PSD [personal security detail] for them. . . . They've [Blackwater] basically got contracts with DOD that are larger than the contracts with State."
According to federal spending data compiled by the independent Web site FedSpending.org, however, the State Department's Blackwater contracts vastly exceed those of the Pentagon. Since 2004, State has paid Blackwater $833,673,316, compared with Defense Department contracts of $101,219,261.
A Blackwater spokeswoman did not return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment.
'There's an issue here'
Directly addressing the question of tension between Defense and State, the State Department official said: "The bottom line of this is that we recognize that there's an issue here. We don't think we need to be told by anyone else that the incident on September 16 raised a whole series of other issues with respect to how these kinds of contract services operate, and that's why we're both working with this joint commission with the Iraqis as well as [conducting an] internal investigation here to ensure we can address some of the underlying issues."
Scores of private security firms play a vital role in the U.S. military mission, from force protection to securing the perimeters of U.S. bases and guarding generals. They free up more U.S. soldiers for combat duty and to secure neighborhoods.
At the same time, the military has long been wary of private security guards, especially those who, in the military's view, don't follow the rules of engagement that govern soldiers. Often, private guards quickly drive away from the scene of an incident, leaving soldiers to clean up the mess, officials said.
"I personally was concerned about any of the civilians running around on the battlefield during my time there," said retired Army Col. Teddy Spain, who commanded a military police brigade in Baghdad. "My main concern was their lack of accountability when things went wrong."
In Iraq, Blackwater operations have been a source of controversy. In 2004, insurgents ambushed four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah and mutilated their bodies. U.S. Marines were ordered to invade the city to capture the assailants, triggering one of the war's most fierce battles. The firm mostly hires former Navy SEAL operatives.
"They are immature shooters, and have very quick trigger fingers. Their tendency is shoot first and ask questions later," said an Army lieutenant colonel serving in Iraq. Referring to the Sept. 16 shootings, the officer added: "None of us believe they were engaged, but we are all carrying their black eyes."
"Many of my peers think Blackwater is oftentimes out of control," said a senior U.S. commander serving in Iraq. "They often act like 'cowboys' over here . . . not seeming to play by the same rules everyone else tries to play by."
"Many of us feel that when Blackwater and other groups conduct military missions, they should be subject to the same controls under which the Army operates," said Marc Lindemann, who served in Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division and is now an officer in the New York National Guard and a state prosecutor.
A Pentagon source in Washington said, "We are really making State respond, conduct an investigation and come up with recommendations." The source described discussion in Washington as calm and professional but, referring to Iraq, said, "There is probably a bit more emotion going on in theater."
There have been private discussions in the past over whether the Defense Department should oversee the State Department's security contracts, according to the Pentagon source. Defense rules for licensing, oversight and incident reports when weapons are discharged are more stringent, the source said. The military is known to quickly and routinely investigate incidents involving its contractors.
But "it would be a turf battle," the source said. State would oppose it because "you are taking away a primary mission their regional security officer has -- you'd be breaking new ground." At the same time, "DOD is not volunteering to take them over."
"Given their record of recklessness," said the senior U.S. commander, "I'm not sure any senior military officer here would want responsibility for them."
An Army brigadier general said finding a way to prosecute security companies for violations was more crucial than regulating them. In Iraq, they were given immunity under a regulation, Order 17, crafted by Iraq's U.S. overseers after the 2003 invasion.
The Iraqi government has backed away from a threat to expel Blackwater, largely because of its role in protecting senior U.S. diplomats and civilian operatives. Officials said they would take action once the investigation by a 16-member U.S.-Iraqi commission is completed.
"I think the military culture fully accepts these days, rightly or wrongly, that we can't go to war anymore without these contractors," said one Iraq war veteran. "I do not expect calls for action from within the structure and have heard none. If action comes, it will be from Capitol Hill or pressure brought by the press."
"The deaths of contractors from Blackwater helped precipitate the debacle in Fallujah in 2004 and now the loss of Blackwater is causing disruptions in the war effort in 2007," said one military intelligence officer. "Why are we creating new vulnerabilities by relying on what are essentially mercenary forces?"
Ricks reported from Washington. Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Baghdad and staff writers Steve Fainaru in El Cerrito, Calif., and Ann Scott Tyson and Karen DeYoung in Washington, and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.