By LARA JAKES
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government has kept a closer eye on U.S. contractors in Iraq since a deadly 2007 shooting by Blackwater guards, but it still needs to do a better job tracking and investigating when private security guards fire their guns, two new Pentagon audits have found.
The reports were released Tuesday by the Pentagon's special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. They looked at the oversight of at least 13 U.S. firms working for the Defense and State departments between May 2008 and February 2009.
In perhaps the most serious lapse of oversight, one of the audits concluded, contractor watchdogs did not properly report and track the May 2008 death of an Army Corps of Engineers employee who was caught in a gunfight between security guards and al-Qaida suspects near Bayji, in central Iraq.
Pentagon auditors said the employee's death should have been recorded in a database and triggered an Army investigation. U.S. officials in Iraq, however, said that was unnecessary if "the incident is caused by the enemy and does not involve a local national," the audit found.
"Because of the lack of documentation, we could not determine if the incident was not investigated for the reasons cited by ... officials or there simply is no record of an investigation," the audit noted.
In all, contractor watchdogs did not record five out of 109 incidents where private guards fired their weapons during the 10-month period, the audit found. Moreover, the watchdogs' database did not have evidence supporting 51 percent of the incidents reported.
Responding, the military's Armed Contractor Oversight Branch in Iraq reported that it now tracks all serious incident reports of contractor shootings in its database, including 44 between February and June.
The reports ranged from 25 accidental shootings and the killing of a poisonous snake to 17 so-called "graduated force response" incidents that escalated into shootings. Of those 17, three have been referred for investigation, auditors found.
The second audit found that new rules for contractors that were put in place after the 2007 Blackwater shootings generally have helped oversight and coordination between private guards and the military.
Seventeen Iraqi civilians died in the notorious Blackwater shootings in Baghdad's Nisoor Square, an incident that strained U.S.-Iraqi relations. Blackwater is no longer operating in Baghdad, although it still has guards in some southern areas who are working under the company's new name, Xe.
Five Blackwater guards have pleaded not guilty in the shootings, which Justice Department prosecutors say was an unprovoked attack on civilians. The guards' lawyers, however, say the five men believed they were under attack and acting in self-defense.
A sixth Blackwater guard struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to killing one Iraqi and wounding another
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