The US government ignored numerous warnings over the past two years that private security firms in Iraq were operating with little supervision and instead expanded their role, a media report said Monday.

Warnings about the risks posed by tens of thousands of US-funded private security guards in Iraq were relayed in writing from defense and legal experts and by senior Iraqi officials, the Washington Post reported, citing US officials, security firms and documents.

But the State Department and the Pentagon took no major action to regulate the security companies until guards from Blackwater Worldwide were involved in a shoot-out in September that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, sparking an international uproar.

“Why is it they couldn’t see this coming?” Christopher Beese, chief administrative officer for ArmorGroup International, a British security firm that works in Iraq, told the newspaper.

“That amazes me. Somebody — it could have been military officers, it could have been State (Department officials) — anybody could have waved a flag and said, ‘Stop, this is not good news for us.'”

Facing a shortage of manpower, the US military and State Department employed the security guards to protect supply convoys, military sites and diplomats in the largest private security force ever contracted by the government in a war.

The Pentagon has estimated it has 20,000 private guards in Iraq while the Government Accountability Office puts the number at 48,000, according to the Post.

Aggressive tactics and a series of shooting incidents in the past two years involving Blackwater — including the killing of a civilian driver just outside the gates of the Iraqi interior ministry — caused outrage among Iraqi government officials and mounting concern among US military officers, the paper said.

Iraqi officials grew increasingly frustrated when no action was taken to punish or rein in the security firms, the paper said, citing US advisers who worked with the Baghdad government.

Despite the disputed track record of the security firms, the State Department in 2006 chose to widen their role, awarding a multi-year contract worth 3.6 billion dollars (2.5 billion euros) to Blackwater and two other firms, the paper reported.

A senior State Department official who asked not to be named told the Post that the department held discussions with the Iraqi government about Blackwater but did not receive “significant warnings” from Baghdad about its conduct.

And the Pentagon defended the use of security firms as a way of saving money and freeing up US troops to fight insurgents and other more important duties.

Spokesman Geoff Morell told the paper that “the reality is that we think our resources are better utilized taking it to the bad guys than guarding warehouses and escorting convoys.”

Blackwater declined to comment on queries from the Post.

In the wake of September’s deadly shooting, US officials from the State and Defense departments earlier this month agreed on new rules for private guards, setting out guidelines on the use of force and the reporting of incidents.

The State Department’s security chief resigned in October after the incident sparked criticism that his office had failed to oversee the private guards.

On September 16, Blackwater guards protecting a State Department convoy opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square, killing 17 civilians.

Although Blackwater guards had claimed they were fired on first, most accounts from the scene insisted that no one ever fired on the US convoy.

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