WASHINGTON (AFP) — US lawmakers voted Thursday to bring private security firms in Iraq out of legal limbo as the FBI took over an investigation into Blackwater, the contractor accused of gunning down innocent Iraqis.
However, officials were loath to say whether the FBI's takeover of a State Department probe could herald criminal charges against Blackwater, the best known of the well-paid US security contractors working in Iraq.
Currently the legal status of the shadowy security companies working independently of the US military in war zones is unclear and legally untested.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives voted 389 to 30 in favor of expanding the US Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, to make all security contractors in conflict zones subject to action in US courts.
The move came two days after Blackwater founder Erik Prince testified to a House committee that his guards had acted appropriately during a Baghdad shootout that killed at least 10 Iraqis on September 16.
Lawmakers had criticized the State Department, whose Diplomatic Security arm had been leading the investigations so far, for a lack of oversight of Blackwater, which reportedly has received US government contracts worth more than a billion dollars since 2001 to protect US diplomats and dignitaries.
A US Congress report this week depicted the company's employees as dangerously out of control, saying Blackwater was involved in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq in the past two years.
Contractors working under the Department of Defense are open to prosecution under US law for transgressions. But those like Blackwater working for the State Department or the US Agency for International Development are not.
Democratic Representative David Price, who sponsored the legislation, said it was hard to believe such a "gaping hole" existed in US law.
"Unlike the military, there is no clear chain of command for contractors, little in the way of standards for training and vetting personnel, and no legal accountability for misconduct," he said.
More than two weeks after the latest bloody shootout, the circumstances remained unclear, with Iraqis furious and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki demanding Blackwater's expulsion.
The Washington Post reported a new account of the September 16 incident, quoting Iraqi eyewitnesses and investigators as saying that Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation and indiscriminately at a busy junction.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation were now in Baghdad to "take the lead" from Diplomatic Security personnel into probing the shootings.
"If the investigation takes a certain turn, if there are certain findings where you need to have the Department of Justice involved, then the FBI would at that point naturally be in the lead," he said.
"I'm not saying we have got to that point."
The report released Monday by Congress said that Blackwater has also covered up fatal shootings involving its staff, is the first to shoot in most incidents, and has joined in US military tactical operations.
It also charged that the State Department helped to cover up some of the company's wrongdoing -- even protecting a drunken Blackwater employee who shot dead a guard of Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi last December.
The New York Times identified the employee, who was reportedly spirited out of Iraq and dismissed by Blackwater, as 27-year-old former Army paratrooper Andrew Moonen.
"There's a lot of dust being kicked up, and I'll be glad when it settles," he was quoted as saying from his modest home in Seattle.
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