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US State Department renews Blackwater contract for now; probe of shooting continues

US State Department renews Blackwater contract for now; probe of shooting continues

The U.S. State Department said it will renew Blackwater USA's license to protect diplomats in Baghdad for one year, but a final decision is pending whether the private security company will keep the job.
A top State department official said Friday that because the FBI is investigating last year's fatal shooting of Baghdad civilians, there is no justification now to pull the contract when it comes due in May. Blackwater has a five-year deal to provide personal protection for diplomats, which is reauthorized each year.
The State Department uses Blackwater to guard diplomats in Baghdad, where the sprawling U.S. Embassy is headquartered. The private guards act as bodyguards and armed drivers, escorting government officials when they go outside the fortified Green Zone.
Iraqis were outraged over a Sept. 16 shooting in which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed in a Baghdad square. Blackwater said its guards were protecting diplomats under attack when they opened fire. Iraqi investigators concluded the shooting was unprovoked.
An FBI probe began in November. Prosecutors want to know whether Blackwater contractors used excessive force or violated any laws during the shooting.
Prosecutors have questioned more than 30 witnesses here and in Iraq, but have announced no conclusions. One possibility is that individual contractors could be indicted; another is that the company could be indicted; or the FBI could conclude that no crime was committed.
The company also is the target of an unrelated investigation into whether its contractors smuggled weapons into Iraq. And lawmakers have asked for an investigation into whether Blackwater violated tax laws by classifying employees as independent contractors. The company says the claim is groundless.
The State Department's top security officer, Greg Starr, told reporters that Blackwater's contract eventually could be pulled, depending on what the FBI and an internal State Department inquiry conclude. He would not predict whether that is likely and said he has no information about when the FBI might end its investigation.
Starr's predecessor, Richard Griffin, resigned just one day after a State Department study found serious lapses in the department's oversight of private guards.
The department's decision announced Friday extends Blackwater's contract for the third year in the multiyear deal.
After the September deaths, U.S. commanders in Iraq complained that they often do not know security firms are moving through their areas of responsibility until after some hostile incident has taken place.
In a meeting at the end of October, Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and reached a general understanding that more military control was needed over security firms operating in the war zone.
In December, the Pentagon and the State Department completed a new agreement giving the military in Iraq more control over Blackwater Worldwide and other private security contractors.
The agreement spells out rules, standards and guidelines for the use of private security contractors and says contractors will be accountable for criminal acts under U.S. law. That partly clarifies what happens if a contractor breaks the law, but leaves details to be worked out with Congress.
The State Department also installed new safeguards after the September shooting, including a requirement for additional monitoring of Blackwater convoys.
Democratic Rep. David Price, author of a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would subject all contractors to criminal liability, called Wednesday's agreement "an important step toward improving transparency, management and accountability in security contracting. There is no question that it comes in response to significant congressional pressure ..., but the agencies deserve credit for reading the writing on the wall and taking substantive steps to deal with a clear and critical problem."
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Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.