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Private Security Puts Diplomats, Military at Odds
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 deal with the aftermath, officials said.[an error occurred while processing this directive]
"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," a military intelligence officer said. "Why are we creating new vulnerabilities by relying on what are essentially mercenary forces?"
Ricks reported from Washington. Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Baghdad, 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.