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US tries to gain more control over private security firms in Iraq

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is going to strengthen his department's oversight of private security firms in Iraq.

Speaking during a news conference here with Salvadoran leaders, Gates said he has reviewed a preliminary report from the five-person fact-finding team he sent to Baghdad last week to investigate problems involving the security contractors.

"The recommendations from the group look very reasonable to me," said Gates, who declined to outline the contents of the report. "I anticipate that we will move forward to try to implement them."

He said the "report made a number of recommendations on how we can strengthen our oversight of contractors working for the Department of Defense."

The group also reviewed how contractors working for the State Department operate there.

Gates dispatched the fact-finding team to Baghdad early last week, expressing concerns about whether the military has exercised sufficient oversight of the contractors. A top military officer has said he's seen private security guards overreact, but stressed that they fill a critical need.

Gates was meeting Tuesday with military and national leaders in El Salvador, the first stop in a five-day, five-country swing through Central and South America.

The new review come after a Sept. 16 incident when Blackwater USA guards killed at least 11 Iraqi civilians. It set off a wave of investigations, from the Pentagon and State Department to Congress, into the conduct and oversight of the security companies that routinely protect U.S. diplomats and others.

Blackwater is the largest of the State Department's three contractors.

U.S. military commanders have the authority to discipline the guards, and to insure they are following proper rules of conduct in their use of force.

Key topics during Gates' trip to South and Central America include regional security, counternarcotics strategies and discussions about an alternate location for a key air base in South America. He also is expected to discuss the need for additional peacekeeping forces in the Middle East, particularly in Afghanistan.

Gates met with Salvadoran President Tony Saca and other military officials, and then appeared at a news conference with Saca.

El Salvador is the only Latin American country to have troops in Iraq, with about 280 soldiers doing peacekeeping and humanitarian work in the southern city of Kut.

Asked how long he will keep his troops in Iraq, Saca declined to detail any dates, but suggested that his country would finish the job it started, since his people have also suffered under terrorism.

Asked the same question, Gates said the U.S. obviously would like to have continued assistance in Iraq, but the final decision would obviously be up to the Salvadoran government.

In other comments, Gates also took the opportunity to take a shot at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, long an antagonist of the United States.

"The principle threat represented by Hugo Chavez is to the freedom and economic prosperity of the people of Venezuela," said Gates. "He has been very generous in offering their resources to people around the world when perhaps those resources could be better used to alleviate some of the economic problems facing the people of Venezuela."

Gates' trip will also take him to Colombia, Chile, Peru and Suriname. The only country he has previously visited is Chile.

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