The U.S. State Department has agreed to renew Blackwater USA's license to protect diplomats in Baghdad for one year while the FBI investigates a 2007 incident in which the company's guards are accused of killing 17 Iraqis.
Assistant Secretary of State Gregory Starr told reporters Friday that because the shooting of Baghdad civilians is still under investigation, there is no reason not to renew the contract when it comes due in May. Blackwater has a five-year deal to provide personal protection for diplomats, which is reauthorized each year.
Iraqis were outraged over a Sept. 16 shooting in which 17 civilians were killed in a Baghdad square. Blackwater said its guards were protecting diplomats under attack before they opened fire, but Iraqi investigators concluded the shooting was unprovoked.
A measure issued by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004 prevents foreign security contractors from being prosecuted in local courts. It is unclear whether they could be prosecuted under U.S. law.
After the incident, the State Department changed several elements of the contract, including tightening up rules of engagement, putting cameras on all convoys and having a diplomatic security officer ride along with the detail.
Starr said Blackwater was operating with the agreement of the Iraqi government and he did not know when the FBI's investigation of the incident would be completed.
Asked whether the Blackwater Baghdad deal could be scrapped if the FBI investigation found wrongdoing, Starr said: "We can terminate contracts at the convenience of the government if we have to."
"I am not going to prejudge what the FBI is going to find in their investigation. I think really, it is complex. I think that the U.S. government needs protective services," he said.
"Essentially I think they do a very good job. The September 16th incident was a tragedy. It has to be investigated carefully," he added.
"I am concerned (about the Iraqi response) and yet at the same time there have only been about three incidents, three escalation of force incidents, since Sept. 16," he said.