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Defense secretary sends team to review Iraq contractors

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  • NEW: Defense secretary says he's concerned about contractor accountability
  • Iraqi officials upset after civilians killed by Blackwater USA guards
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday he wants closer oversight of Pentagon contractors in Iraq and has dispatched a team there to review military procedures.

Blackwater USA contractors secure the site of a roadside bombing in Baghdad in July 2005.

"My concern is whether there has been sufficient accountability and oversight in the region over the activities of these security companies," he said.

"That's the main thing that our team is looking into out there -- what is required to give the commanders the means and the resources that they need to be able to exercise adequate oversight."

About 137,000 civilians are working for the U.S. military in Iraq, most of them doing "the various kinds of mundane things that have to be done on a daily basis" -- cooking, transportation and laundry services, Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee. That number includes at least 7,300 of the estimated 25,000 private security contractors working in Iraq, he said.

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England has issued a memo to commanders in Iraq outlining their responsibility for holding contractors accountable, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Gates said he is concerned security companies, which often pay six-figure salaries to former military personnel, are drawing American troops out of the service to work for them. He raised the prospect of including noncompete clauses in contracts in order to "put some limits on the ability of these contractors to lure highly trained soldiers out of our forces."

Under an order laid down by the U.S.-led occupation government in 2004, security contractors are not subject to Iraqi law for actions taken within their contracts.

That has bothered Iraqi leaders, particularly since a September 16 gunbattle involving private security firm Blackwater USA. Iraqi officials say the western Baghdad incident left up to 20 civilians dead.

Gates said contractors could be prosecuted under U.S. civilian law. But while some contractors have been prosecuted for bribery or fraud, Morrell said no Defense Department security contractors have been brought up on charges.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said one contractor from Blackwater USA is under investigation by the Justice Department in connection with the killing of the bodyguard of a leading Iraqi politician.

The use of private military contractors in Iraq has come under scrutiny since the Baghdad shootings. Iraqi authorities say Blackwater guards opened fire indiscriminately; Blackwater says its employees responded properly to an insurgent attack on the convoy.

Blackwater resumed its normal operations of providing security to U.S. civilian authorities in Iraq on Friday after a hiatus sparked by concerns among Iraqi and U.S. government officials over the shootings.

Dr. Tahseen Sheikhly, civilian spokesman for the Baghdad Security Operation, said the Iraqi government has allowed Blackwater to again operate in the streets of Iraq because, otherwise, U.S. troops would have to be pulled from the field to provide security. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

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