Five cases this year in which private Blackwater USA security guards killed Iraqi civilians are at the core of a U.S. review of how the hired protection forces guard diplomats in Iraq, officials said Friday.
Iraqi authorities are also concerned about a sixth incident in which Blackwater guards allegedly threw frozen bottles of water at civilian cars, breaking windshields. No one was killed.
The United States has not made conclusive findings about the incidents, which include a Sept. 16 case in which at least 11 Iraqis died. A State Department official said investigators are not aware of others. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the inquiries are in progress.
The United States is conducting several inquiries spawned by the deadly Baghdad shooting this month involving the private security contractor that protects U.S. diplomats and others in Iraq.
The Sept. 16 killings outraged many Iraqis, who have long resented the presence of armed Western security contractors, considering them an arrogant mercenary force that abuses Iraqis in their own country.
Blackwater is the largest of three private companies contracted by the State Department to provide security for U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
Blackwater in 56 shooting incidents
The State Department has counted 56 shooting incidents involving Blackwater guards in Iraq this year. All will be reviewed as part of a comprehensive inquiry ordered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but the five fatal shootings involving Iraqi civilians are paramount, two officials said.
Rice announced Friday that she has brought in outside military, diplomatic and security advisers to help guide the inquiry.
“My instructions to the panel are simple,” Rice said. “Their review should be serious, probing and comprehensive. Once they have established baseline facts, I look forward to hearing their recommendations on how to protect our people while furthering our foreign policy objectives.”
The broad review ordered by Rice will begin in earnest this weekend. Retired Gen. George Joulwan, a former NATO commander in Europe, and Stapleton Roy, a retired veteran diplomat, will help lead the diplomatic review. Rice also brought in a former State Department and intelligence official, Eric Boswell.
Led by Patrick Kennedy, one of the most senior management experts in the U.S. foreign service, the panel will present an interim report by Oct. 5.
Force protects diplomatic convoys
As of last week, Blackwater had protected U.S. diplomatic convoys 1,873 times this year, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said Thursday. Guards fired 56 times.
The five incidents involving civilians were previously identified by Iraqi authorities, who are also looking into whether the shootings were out of bounds.
Separately, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has sent a fact-finding team to Baghdad to investigate conditions involving private contractors working for the Pentagon and to consult with military officers there.
Contractors sometimes 'overreact'
Meanwhile, a top aide to Gates’ No. 2 general in Iraq told reporters Friday that he has seen private security guards “overreact” but stressed that security contractors fill a vital role.
“Are they quicker with the trigger? Are they quicker to wave a weapon, brandish a weapon, other tactics, cutting people off?” asked Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, chief of staff for Iraq No. 2 commander Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno. That’s a “tough assessment,” he said.
“I have seen them, in my opinion, overreact but that does not mean it’s consistently the case,” Anderson said. He spoke to a Pentagon press conference by video from Baghdad.
“I can certainly say I’ve seen them do some tactics that I thought were over the top. But that’s something we’ve got to keep working out, what their reason, what their rationale was for that, what kind of procedures are going to follow in this country to make sure we don’t have incidents like occurred last week.”
There are not enough uniformed military to perform all the jobs that the Iraq war requires, and several companies provide contract workers to wash clothes, drive trucks and a host of other tasks.
Witness accounts of the Sept. 16 incident vary widely.
American witnesses, including the Blackwater guards, insist the convoy was attacked before the protective detail opened fire, while Iraqi witnesses say the gunshots were unprovoked.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi commission is working on a common set of facts about the incident and looking at ways to clarify the regulations under which private security guards operate in Iraq.
Kennedy’s review will look beyond the Sept. 16 incident to assess what general changes may be required in the State Department’s security program, including rules of engagement that govern contractors.
Tension between Waxman, Krongard
On another investigative front, tension is growing between Rep. Henry Waxman’s congressional oversight committee and Howard Krongard, the State Department inspector general.
On Friday, Waxman accused senior State Department staff of threatening employees attempting to cooperate with the committee’s probe into allegations Krongard interfered with ongoing probes.
Ron Militana and Brian Rubendall, both special agents in Krongard’s office, were informed there would be consequences if they spoke out.
“’Howard could retaliate, and you would have no recourse,”’ Militana was told, according to a letter from Waxman to Krongard.
Militana kept notes of the Sept. 25 meeting, which he gave to Waxman’s staff.
Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said it is not clear whether Krongard directed that the threats be made.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Krongard plans to testify before Waxman’s committee “and clarify any concerns.”
Casey said he had not read Waxman’s letter, but the department would be concerned if individuals were being told not to assist a congressional inquiry.