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State Department downplays report of security contractor drawdown

Agency spokeswoman says it’s “premature to speculate” about major policy changes.

The State Department is playing down a report that it is considering phasing out its use of security guards in Iraq and canceling its contract with Blackwater USA.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that a drawdown of security contractors is an option being considered by a commission that began operating in Baghdad last month.

A State Department spokeswoman noted that the commission has just begun its work -- only two of the panel's four members have arrived in Iraq -- and it is too early in the process to discuss possible outcomes.

"The commission has been tasked with conducting a 360-degree review of security practices in Iraq," said Amanda Rogers-Harper, the spokeswoman. "We will look at all options but it is premature to speculate at this point."

Blackwater did not respond to a request for comment.

The commission is headed by Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, the State Department's director of management policy. Other members include Gen. George Joulwan, who recently served on the congressionally mandated Iraqi Security Forces Independent Assessment Commission; Stapleton Roy, the former U.S. ambassador to China, Singapore and Indonesia; and Eric Boswell, a former assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week that she had received an initial assessment of Blackwater's Baghdad operations from Kennedy and Boswell. She expects Roy and Joulwan to arrive in Iraq this week to provide a more thorough assessment.

"My instructions to the panel are simple: Their review should be serious, probing and comprehensive," Rice said. "Once they have established baseline facts, I look forward to hearing their recommendations on how to protect our people while furthering our foreign policy objectives."

Based on initial findings, Rice directed special agents from the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security to begin accompanying Blackwater on protective details and to improve the bureau's ability to review material after a violent incident. The bureau monitors radio transmissions but will now begin recording them. Agents also will begin mounting video cameras in security vehicles.

Those familiar with security operations in Iraq suspect that the State Department would have a difficult time replacing Blackwater's services in Baghdad, either with another contractor or internally with personnel from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

"It would be very difficult to train all those people," said Doug Brooks, founder of the International Peace Operations Association, an industry group that represents 42 American security contractors. "It's a manpower and skill-sets issue."

On Wednesday, Blackwater withdrew its membership from the IPOA. Brooks said Blackwater had been a member in good standing since 2001 but gave no specific reason for its departure.

According to a July Congressional Research Service report, Blackwater has roughly 1,000 security contractors operating in Baghdad. DynCorp International of Falls Church, Va., has about 150 working on a State Department contract in the northern Kurdish region, and Triple Canopy of Herndon, Va., has more than 250 security guards in southern Iraq.

The State Department commission was prompted by the Sept. 16 shooting of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisoor Square, allegedly by Blackwater security guards. The Iraqi government has blamed Blackwater for the deaths of 17 civilians. Company officials said its people were fired on first, and the FBI is investigating.

On Thursday, a nonprofit civil liberties group filed a lawsuit against Blackwater under the Alien Tort Claims Act on behalf of the families of three of the Iraqis killed in the shooting.

The suit, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, claims Blackwater "created and fostered a culture of lawlessness amongst its employees, encouraging them to act in the company's financial interests at the expense of innocent human life."

The group said Blackwater should be held liable for claims of assault and battery, wrongful death, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligent hiring, training and supervision.