Washington (AFP) Oct 30, 2007
The US military will coordinate the movements of security firms in Iraq in agreement with the State Department, Pentagon officials said Tuesday as a new row flared over private bodyguards.
Working groups from the State Department and the Pentagon had reached a "common understanding" that the US military in Iraq should coordinate the movement of contractors, but still had to flesh out the details, Pentagon press officer Geoff Morrell said.
But US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reached no agreement at a lunch meeting on Tuesday on whether to bring the contractors under the sole command of the US military, he added.
Gates believes a common set of standards for private security guards, common rules on the use of force and military coordination of their movements may be enough, as long as US commanders agree, Morrell said.
The US defense secretary believes "that could suffice in terms of giving the commanders the knowledge of what is going on in the battle space so they aren't blindsided by contractors running in and out of their battle space and potentially causing problems."
Questions over who controls the armed private security contractors came to a head after a shooting incident September 16 in Baghdad in which 17 Iraqis were killed, allegedly by Blackwater USA guards protecting a State Department convoy.
The State Department has sought to keep control over the 2,500 security contractors it employs to protect diplomats and guard its facilities.
But since the September 16 incident it has been beset by questions over whether it holds its private guards accountable for their conduct.
Fresh doubts were raised Tuesday following US reports that State Department officials investigating the shooting offered Blackwater guards immunity from prosecution in return for their version of the events.
"The legal issues, at least based upon the lunch that the secretaries had today, were not resolved," Morrell said.
He cited annecdotal account by an unidentified general who told Gates that 30 percent of the calls to his command for rapid reaction forces were from security contractors he had not known were in the area.
"I think the fact is that one person, one entity has got to know who's going where and when and what they're doing there," Morrell told reporters.
"And if it is unsafe or deemed not advisable to go there, someone is going to have the control to say: 'No, not at this time.'"
"And as we envision that, as the common understanding of the working group has come to already, it would be MNF-I that would have that authority," he said, using the acronym for Multi-National Forces-Iraq.
"I believe it's safe to say that all this stuff needs to be tightened up," Morrell said.
"Whether it be the standards by which they are trained, their understanding of the mission, the rules for the use of force, and clearly coordination."
earlier related report
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Monday said Iraqi forces would assume control in the province. British troops are therefore due to switch to overwatch duties.
"We are delighted that the government of Iraq has announced its intention to transfer security responsibility for Basra province to the Iraqi authorities in December," said Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Defence Secretary Des Browne in a joint statement.
"This confirms the strategy of transition announced by the Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) earlier this month and is firmly in line with the coalition's progressive handover strategy across Iraq."
Maliki's announcement came as local forces assumed security control from US troops in Karbala, the eighth of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed over.
Of the four southern provinces Britain had security control over following the March 2003 US-led invasion, it has already moved to overwatch duties in Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Maysan.
"The decision to hand over any of the provinces is not made lightly and a rigorous assessment of both the prospects for enduring security and the capabilities of the Iraqi authorities has been conducted," the statement said.
"Following the formal handover ceremony in December, UK and coalition forces will be in overwatch across the whole of southern Iraq.
"The transition of Basra does not signal the end of our commitment to the people of Iraq. It now enters a new stage.
"We will continue to train and mentor the Iraqi security forces and we will protect the border and supply routes, while retaining the capability to support the Iraqis directly if so requested.
"But the Iraqis will take the lead, as they have proved more than capable of doing in Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Maysan. We will remain closely engaged with the government of Iraq to promote national reconciliation, and to ensure the development of a diverse and strong economy."
Earlier in October, Brown set out plans to reduce British troop numbers to 2,500, from early next year.
He said there would be "two distinct stages" in the handover of Basra province. The first would see British troops focus on training and mentoring Iraqi forces, before they assumed a more limited ability to intervene.
British troops are based at an air station outside the oil port city of Basra, Iraq's second city.
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Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century
Is A Kurdistan War The Lesser Of Two Evils
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The latest local crisis in the Middle East mostly revolves around Turkish-Kurdish relations. Although Iraqi Kurdistan has not yet achieved independence, it is moving in this direction. Many experts predict that another regional war, the assassination of a political leader or the liquidation of an arch-terrorist could cause major problems. But the world would probably cease to exist if all these predictions came true.
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