Washington — A State Department review of private security guards for diplomats in Iraq is unlikely to recommend firing Blackwater USA over the deaths of 17 Iraqis last month, but the company probably is on the way out of that job, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Blackwater's work escorting U.S. diplomats outside the protected Green Zone in Baghdad expires in May, one official said, and other officials told The Associated Press they expect the North Carolina company will not continue to work for the embassy after that.
It is likely that Blackwater will not compete to keep the job, one official said. Blackwater probably will not be fired outright or even "eased out," the official added, but there is a mutual feeling that the Sept. 16 shooting deaths mean the company cannot continue in its current role.
State Department officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has not yet considered results of an internal review of Blackwater and the other two companies that protect diplomats in Iraq.
Department officials said no decisions have been made and that Rice has the final say.
They gave admiring appraisals of Blackwater's work overall, noting that no diplomats have died while riding in Blackwater's heavily armed convoys.
President Bush did not directly answer a question Wednesday about whether he was satisfied with the performance of security contractors.
"I will be anxious to see the analysis of their performance," Bush said at a news conference. "There's a lot of studying going on, both inside Iraq and out, as to whether or not people violated rules of engagement. I will tell you, though, that a firm like Blackwater provides a valuable service. They protect people's lives, and I appreciate the sacrifice and the service that the Blackwater employees have made."
A panel that Rice appointed to review the contractors will report to her as soon as Friday, and Rice's announcement of what to do next probably will follow quickly, one department official said.
A transition from Blackwater would take time.
The company employs more people and has more equipment than its two competitors in Iraq. Any outside company that might replace Blackwater would have to provide trained U.S. citizens, with security clearances. That may mean that if Blackwater leaves, competitors will hire some of its workers.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said, "We will follow the lead of our client. If they want us to stay we will stay. If they want us to leave we will do so."
A top aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Wednesday that the Iraqi leader has pressed U.S. Embassy officials in recent meetings to pull Blackwater out of the country even before the six-month deadline he initially set.
Iraq's government is demanding $8 million compensation for each of the 17 people reported killed in the Sept. 16 incident involving Blackwater.
The al-Maliki aide said the prime minister's office also is drafting legislation that would cancel Decree 17, a measure issued by the former U.S. occupation government that put private security companies outside Iraqi law.
The aide, who spoke on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said an Australian-owned security firm whose employees mistakenly shot and killed two Christian women Oct. 9 does not face eviction from Iraq because it quickly apologized, cooperated with authorities and offered compensation for the deaths.