Gates Seeks Changes On Iraq Contractors

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that the mission of private security contractors guarding individuals in Iraq is fundamentally at odds with the broader U.S. military objective of stabilizing Iraq, and that changes would be required to reconcile them.

"Right now those missions are in conflict, because the objective of . . . delivering a principal safely to a destination" has led to the mistreatment of Iraqis "to put it mildly," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference. "So those kinds of activities work at cross-purposes to our larger mission in Iraq."

Gates's comments came as the State Department reviews the actions of Blackwater USA private security guards who on Sept. 16 allegedly shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle. The Iraqi government has demanded that the contractors -- hired to protect U.S. diplomats -- be held accountable.

Gates plans to meet soon with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss changes in how private guards working for the State Department operate in Iraq to insure that they do not undermine U.S. military goals of winning support from Iraqi citizens, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. "Private security contractors will likely have to assume greater risk. They are going to have to pay greater consideration to the larger mission" of gaining the trust of Iraqis, Morrell said. That may require "changing their MO, the way in which they operate, how they drive, how they handle busy traffic circles" as well as how they use force, he said.

The upshot, Morrell said, is that private security contractors would have to change their tactics to take into account the safety of Iraqi citizens -- in essence adopting procedures more similar to those of U.S. soldiers. That could mean driving less aggressively, escalating force more gradually, or taking time to better identify targets.

In meeting with Rice, Gates plans to raise the idea of placing all private security contractors working for the U.S. government in Iraq under a central entity to strengthen oversight. "It is important that we have the means and the mechanisms to ensure that we know what's going on and that these activities are coordinated," Gates said. "But I'll sit down with Secretary Rice and we'll see how we can work this out to achieve the objectives that I described," he said.

He said the U.S. military could take over the work of contractors but "it would require an enormous commitment of American troops . . . to assuring the security of our diplomats and civilians working in Baghdad and in the rest of Iraq, as opposed to working the security situation for Iraq more broadly."

The security restraints on diplomatic activities in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have led to recent studies advocating "risk management" rather than "risk avoidance" in the Foreign Service. A report titled "The Embassy of the Future," written by retired senior State officials and former ambassadors, recommended that the State Department provide "specialized training" for its diplomats, such as "training offered by U.S. military and/or intelligence agencies, connected to service in the most challenging assignments, including high-danger pay posts."

Security worries have inhibited the personal contact that is key to diplomacy, said the report, published Monday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "A risk-averse culture persists," it said.

In the Pentagon news conference, Gates discussed other concerns in Iraq. He said there is a serious risk that Turkey will cut off critical U.S. military air and ground supply routes if Congress passes a resolution calling the deaths of Armenians genocide. "I don't think the Turks are bluffing," Gates said. Seventy percent of U.S. military air cargo, a third of its fuel, and 95 percent of new mine-resistant armored vehicles are moving through Turkey, he said.

He also suggested that the United States and Iraq would be willing to step up efforts in northern Iraq against members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is waging a guerrilla insurgency in southeastern Turkey. "We are determined to work with the Turks in trying to reduce this threat to the Turkish people and the Turkish army," Gates said. "These people are basically terrorists and I think we would try and do the appropriate thing" as intelligence on them becomes available, he said.

Adm. Michael Mullen, in his first news conference as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also pointed to rising concerns about Iranian involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which he called a "huge and growing" concern, adding that the United States has ample reserve of forces to take action against Iran if necessary, although that remains a last resort.

U.S. and Afghan officials yesterday described the intercept last month of a convoy into Afghanistan from Iran that carried advanced weapons materials for making roadside bombs. "The Taliban are getting support from Iran, both weapons and money," Gates said. Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak called the trend "significant" and said Afghan authorities are "monitoring the situation" carefully.

Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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