Panel calls for dropping Blackwater guards in Iraq

By MATTHEW LEE – 9 hours ago

WASHINGTON (AP) — A State Department advisory panel is recommending that Blackwater Worldwide be dropped as the main private security contractor for American diplomats in Iraq, The Associated Press has learned.

A senior official familiar with a report commissioned by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the AP on Wednesday that the panel has called for Blackwater's contract not to be renewed when it expires next year. A decision on the recommendation will be left to the Obama administration, which will be in place when the contract comes up for renewal in the spring.

Rice ordered a review of the department's use of private security firms last September after an incident in which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad. Five guards have been indicted on manslaughter and other charges stemming from that incident. The company was not implicated.

It is not clear how the State Department would replace Blackwater if the recommendation is accepted. The department relies heavily on private contractors, including Blackwater, to protect diplomats in Iraq as its own security service does not have the manpower or equipment to do so.

Among the other recommendations in the roughly 40-page report is for the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service to beef up its presence in Iraq, according to the official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not yet been released.

A redacted version of the report is expected to be made public soon and the State Department's inspector general was to send the entire document to Congress on Wednesday, the official said.

The recommendation does not affect Blackwater contracts outside Iraq, but a decision to terminate the North Carolina-based company there will be difficult for incoming Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to make because no other private security contractor has its range of resources, particularly its fleet of helicopters and planes.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrell declined to comment Wednesday, saying the company has not yet seen the report.

Blackwater has won more than $1 billion in government contracts under the Bush administration, a large portion of which has been for work in Iraq, where among its duties is protecting diplomats based at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

State Department officials have praised Blackwater's work in Iraq, noting that no personnel under the company's protection has been killed. However, after the September 2007 incident at Nisoor Square in Baghdad, the firm came under heavy criticism for the actions of some its employees.

Immediately after that incident, the State Department stepped up its supervision of Blackwater employees in Iraq, including posting a Diplomatic Security agent in every convoy the company escorts and installing video cameras in its vehicles.

U.S. investigators have linked Blackwater guards to 70 shooting incidents involving civilians before Nisoor Square and only two since then.

A new U.S.-Iraqi security pact lifts security guard immunity, although it will be retained for on-duty American troops and contractors working with them.