July 4, 2007
The number of U.S.-paid private contractors in Iraq now exceeds that of American combat troops, newly released figures show, raising fresh questions about the privatization of the war effort and the government's capacity to carry out military and rebuilding campaigns.
More than 180,000 civilians -- including Americans, foreigners and Iraqis -- are working in Iraq under U.S. contracts, according to State and Defense Department figures obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Including the recent troop surge, 160,000 soldiers and a few thousand civilian government employees are stationed in Iraq.
The total number of private contractors, far higher than previously reported, shows how heavily the Bush administration has relied on private corporations to carry out the occupation of Iraq -- a mission criticized as being undermanned.
"These numbers are big," said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written on military contracting. "They illustrate better than anything that we went in without enough troops. This is not the coalition of the willing. It's the coalition of the billing."
The numbers include at least 21,000 Americans, 43,000 foreign contractors and about 118,000 Iraqis -- all employed in Iraq by U.S. tax dollars, according to the most recent government data.
The array of private workers promises to be a factor in debates on a range of policy issues, including the privatization of military jobs and the number of Iraqi refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S.
But there also are signs that even those mounting numbers may not capture the full picture. Private security contractors, who are hired to protect government officials and buildings, were not fully counted in the survey, according to industry and government officials.
Continuing uncertainty over the numbers of armed contractors drew special criticism from military experts.
"We don't have control of all the coalition guns in Iraq. That's dangerous for our country," said William Nash, a retired Army general and reconstruction expert. The Pentagon "is hiring guns. You can rationalize it all you want, but that's obscene."
Although private companies have played a role in conflicts since the American revolution, the U.S. has relied more on contractors in Iraq than in any other war in the nation's history, according to military experts. Contractors perform functions including construction work, private security and weapons system maintenance.
Military officials say contractors cut costs while allowing troops to focus on fighting wars rather than on other tasks.
"The only reason we have contractors is to support the war fighter," said Gary Motsek, the assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense who oversees contractors. "Fundamentally, they're supporting the mission as required."
But critics worry that troops and their missions could be jeopardized if contractors, functioning outside the military's command and control, refuse to make deliveries of vital supplies under fire. At one point in 2004, for example, U.S. forces were put on food rations when drivers balked at taking supplies into a combat zone.
There's no official count
Adding an element of potential confusion, no single agency keeps track of the number or location of contractors. In response to demands from Congress, the U.S. Central Command began conducting a census last year of contractors working on U.S. and Iraqi bases in order to determine how much food, water and shelter was needed.
That census, provided to the Times in response to its request under the Freedom of Information Act, shows approximately 130,000 contractors and subcontractors of different nationalities working at U.S. and Iraqi military bases.
However, U.S. military officials acknowledged that the census did not include other government agencies, including the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Last month, USAID reported about 53,000 Iraqis employed under U.S. reconstruction contracts, doing jobs such as garbage pickup and helping to teach democracy. In interviews, agency officials said an additional 300 Americans and foreigners worked as contractors for the agency.
State Department officials said they could not provide the department's number of contractors. Of approximately 5,000 people affiliated with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, about 300 are State Department employees. The remaining several thousand are a mix of other government agency workers and contractors, many of whom are building the new U.S. Embassy.
The companies with the largest number of employees are foreign firms in the Middle East that subcontract to KBR, the Houston-based oil services company, according to the Central Command database. KBR, once a subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., provides logistics support to troops, the single largest contract in Iraq.
The Middle Eastern companies, such as Turkish-based Kulak Construction and Dubai-based Prime Projects International, supply labor from Third World countries to KBR and other U.S. companies for menial work on U.S. bases and rebuilding projects. Foreigners are used instead of Iraqis because of fears that insurgents could infiltrate projects.
KBR is by far the largest employer of Americans, with nearly 14,000 U.S. workers. Other large employers of Americans in Iraq include L3 Communications, which holds a contract to provide translators to troops, and ITT Corp., a New York engineering and technology firm.
The most controversial contractors are those working for private security companies, including North Carolina-based Blackwater, Triple Canopy and Erinys. They provide protection to U.S. and Iraqi government officials and businessmen, and guard sensitive sites.
Security contractors draw some of the sharpest criticism, much of it from military policy experts who say their jobs should be done by the military. On several occasions, heavily armed private contractors have engaged in firefights when attacked by Iraqi insurgents.
Others worry that the private security contractors lack accountability. While scores of troops have been prosecuted for serious crimes, only a handful of private security contractors have faced legal charges.
The number of private security contractors in Iraq remains unclear, despite Central Command's latest census. The Times identified 21 security companies in the Central Command database, deploying 10,800 men. However, the Defense Department's Motsek, who monitors contractors, said the Pentagon estimated the total was 6,000.
Both figures are far below the private security industry's own estimate of about 30,000 private security contractors working for government agencies, nonprofit organizations, media outlets and businesses.
Industry officials said that private security companies helped reduce the number of troops needed in Iraq and provided jobs to Iraqis -- a benefit in a country with high unemployment.
"A guy who is working for a [private security company] is not out on the street doing something inimical to our interests," said Lawrence Peter, director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq.
Not surprisingly, Iraqis make up the largest number of civilian employees under U.S. contracts. Typically, the government contracts with an American firm, which then subcontracts with an Iraqi firm to do the job.
The Iraqis have been the most difficult to track. As recently as May, the Pentagon told Congress that 22,000 Iraqis were employed by its contractors. But the Pentagon number recently jumped to 65,000 -- a result of closer inspection of contracts, an official said.
The total number of Iraqis employed under U.S. contracts is important, in part because it may influence debate in Congress regarding how many Iraqis will be allowed to come to the U.S. to escape violence in their homeland.
This year, the U.S. planned to cap that number at 7,000 Iraqis per year. To date, however, only a few dozen have been admitted, according to State Department figures.
Kirk Johnson, head of the List Project, which seeks to increase the admission of Iraqis, said that the U.S. needed to provide a haven to those who worked most closely with American officials.
"We all say we are grateful to these Iraqis," Johnson said. "How can we be the only superpower in the world that can't implement what we recognize as a moral imperative?"