WASHINGTON — The Defense Department announced Wednesday that it's sent a team of investigators to Iraq to look into how the U.S. military monitors private security contractors in the wake of a Sept. 16 incident in which security guards working for the State Department killed at least 11 Iraqi civilians.
Pentagon officials also said they've sent a memo to commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan reminding them that they can court-martial private security guards working under military contracts who violate U.S. military law.
The twin actions come as U.S. and Iraqi authorities try to determine how to punish private security contractors who shoot civilians unnecessarily or take other actions that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior military officials worry are undermining U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry has referred its investigation of the Sept. 16 incident to a magistrate for possible criminal charges, saying that security guards from Blackwater USA opened fire without provocation at a busy Baghdad intersection, killing 11 and wounding 12. At the time, the guards were escorting a State Department convoy. Blackwater has said its guards were responding to hostile fire.
Iraqi lawmakers this week also began consideration of a proposal that would make the contractors answerable to Iraqi law. The proposal would overturn a three-year-old order by the U.S. authority that ran Iraq until 2004 that granted the contractors immunity from prosecution.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates ordered the investigation and memo after the Sept. 16 incident, but that the Pentagon team wouldn't investigate that incident, which is the subject of a joint State Department-Iraqi probe.
But he said Gates wanted to make certain that contractors working for the Defense Department understood that they must adhere to the same rules of engagement as U.S. troops and that military commanders understood that they could prosecute any contractors who violate those rules.
At a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Gates said that he also wanted to know whether the military has the resources to investigate any alleged crimes by contractors.
"My concern is whether there has been sufficient accountability and oversight," Gates said.
The use of contractors to perform military tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan has been controversial for years. Advocates of the practice say hiring outsiders to guard convoys and officials frees up soldiers for combat assignments. Detractors say the private contractors are expensive and often violate military rules on when they can fire their weapons. Iraqis complain that the contractors are particularly aggressive and damage property and injure civilians with impunity.
In all, there are 137,000 contractors working for the Department of Defense in Iraq, compared with nearly 170,000 members of the U.S. military.
The Pentagon probe will deal only with contractors working for the Department of Defense. The Blackwater guards suspected in the Baghdad shooting were working under a State Department contract and couldn't be held accountable under military law.
The investigating team will meet with Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander there, Morrell said.
In the memo, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told military commanders that they're responsible for monitoring contractors under their control and charging those who violate rules of engagement.
"Commanders have UCMJ (Uniformed Code of Military Justice) authority to disarm, apprehend, and detain DoD contractors suspected of having committed a felony offense in violation of the RUF (Rules on the Use of Force)," Gordon wrote. The memo was dated Tuesday.
England said commanders should review contractors' standard operating procedures and make any necessary changes to the way they authorize force to "minimize the risk of innocent civilian causalities or unnecessary destruction of civilian property."
The State Department hasn't distributed a similar memo, and it is unclear what, if any, U.S. law applies to the actions of its contractors.
So far, no Defense Department contractor has been charged under U.S. law, and no security contracts have been suspended for violations, Morrell said.
The Defense Department now has 16 contracts with various security companies to provide services in Iraq and Afghanistan. At their peak, there were 33 such contracts.
Among Iraqis, there's a growing call for the nascent government to ban security contractors altogether. Such a ban would require U.S. diplomats to reorganize their operations in Iraq, where State Department officials rarely move with armed escorts.
Within the military, there's disagreement about the role of contractors. During his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Petraeus said that he couldn't effectively wage a counterinsurgency war without contactors, who do everything from security to food preparation.
But in an interview earlier this month with the Associated Press, Navy Adm. William Fallon, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, said he didn't want contractors seen as a "surrogate army."
"My instinct is that it's easier and better if they were in uniform and were working for me," Fallon said. "There's a rule set out there, and these guys should adhere to it as far as action, training and accountability."
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Read the England memo to U.S. commanders (.pdf)