Casualties among private contractors in Iraq have soared to record levels this year, setting a pace that seems certain to turn 2007 into the bloodiest year yet for the civilians who work alongside the American military in the war zone, according to new government numbers.
At least 146 contract workers were killed in Iraq in the first three months of the year, by far the highest number for any quarter since the war began in March 2003, according to the Labor Department, which processes death and injury claims for those working as United States government contractors in Iraq.
That brings the total number of contractors killed in Iraq to at least 917, along with more than 12,000 wounded in battle or injured on the job, according to government figures and dozens of interviews.
The numbers, which have not been previously reported, disclose the extent to which contractors -- Americans, Iraqis and workers from more than three dozen other countries -- are largely hidden casualties of the war, and now are facing increased risks alongside American soldiers and marines as President Bush's plan to increase troop levels in Baghdad takes hold.
As troops patrol more aggressively in and around the capital, both soldiers and the contractors who support them, often at small outposts, are at greater peril. The contractor deaths earlier this year, for example, came closer to the number of American military deaths during the same period -- 244 -- than during any other quarter since the war began, according to official figures.
''The insurgents are going after the softest targets, and the contractors are softer targets than the military,'' said Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense for manpower during the Reagan administration. ''The U.S. is being more aggressive over there, and these contractor deaths go right along with it.''
Truck drivers and translators account for a significant share of the casualties, but the recent death toll includes others who make up what amounts to a private army.
Among them were four American security guards who died in a helicopter crash in January, 28 Turkish construction workers whose plane crashed north of Baghdad the same month, a Massachusetts man who was blown up as he dismantled munitions for an American company in March and a Georgia woman killed in a missile attack in March while working as a coordinator for KBR, the contracting company.
Donald E. Tolfree Jr., a trucker from Michigan, was fatally shot in the cab of his vehicle while returning to Camp Anaconda, north of Baghdad, in early February. His daughter, Kristen Martin, 23, said Army officials told her he was shot by an American military guard confused about her father's assignment. The Army confirms the death is under investigation as a possible friendly-fire episode.
Ms. Martin said she waited three weeks for her father's body to be returned home, and expressed resentment that dead contractors were treated differently from soldiers who fall in battle.
''If anything happens to the military people, you hear about it right away,'' she said in a telephone interview. ''Flags get lowered, they get their respect. You don't hear anything about the contractors.''
Military officials in Washington and Baghdad said that no Pentagon office tracked contractor casualties and that they had no way to confirm or explain the sharp rise in deaths this year.
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top spokesman for the American military in Iraq, declined through an aide to address the matter. ''Contractors are out of our lane, and we don't comment on them,'' said the aide, Lt. Matthew Breedlove.
Companies that have lost workers in Iraq were generally unresponsive to questions about the numbers of deaths and the circumstances that led to casualties. None acknowledged that they had seen an increase this year.
But a spokesman for American International Group, the insurance company that covers about 80 percent of the contractor work force in Iraq, said it had seen a sharp increase in death and injury claims in recent months. The Labor Department records show that in addition to the 146 dead in the first three months this year, another 3,430 contractors filed claims for wounds or injuries suffered in Iraq, also a quarterly record. The number of casualties, though, may be much higher because the government's statistical database is not complete.
The Labor numbers were provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The New York Times. Other figures came from a variety of government agencies, private contractors and insurers handling casualty claims.
American military casualties in Iraq have mounted to almost 3,400 dead. The new contractor statistics suggest that for every four American soldiers or marines who die in Iraq, a contractor is killed.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who pushed for the buildup of military forces in Iraq, said the contractor casualties were a symptom of a larger failure to send enough troops earlier to provide security throughout Iraq.
''We're now putting these people in danger that I never thought they'd be under because we cannot secure the country,'' he said.
Other lawmakers also expressed concern about the numbers. Representative John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who is chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said that he was shocked at the extent of casualties among contractors and that he planned to hold hearings this fall on the use of private workers in Iraq.
Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, has introduced legislation to force the government to release detailed records on the use of contractors in Iraq and the names and job descriptions of all those killed and injured, information that is virtually impossible to get right now. The military releases names and biographical information about its wartime casualties, but businesses are not required to provide such information, and the Labor Department refuses to do so, citing privacy laws.
''By keeping the knowledge of this force hidden, it changes one's perception and one's evaluation of the war,'' Ms. Schakowsky said. ''There are almost a thousand dead and a large number of injuries. I think it masks the fact that we are privatizing the military in this country.''
Contract workers say that as the tempo of military operations has increased in recent months, so have the attacks on contractors. Convoys of trucks operated by companies are often not as well armored or protected as military units, they say.
A top security industry official said he was told recently by American military and contracting officials that 50 to 60 percent of all truck convoys in Iraq were coming under attack. Previously, he said, only about 10 percent had been hit.
''There is a definite spike in convoy attacks,'' said the official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because the information was confidential. Gordon Dreher, 48, who drove a fuel truck supplying American troops in Iraq, said he and other drivers faced almost constant attacks from insurgents.
''I've been shot at, had my truck blown out from under me, had an I.E.D. hit about six feet away from me, and lost part of my hearing,'' he said, referring to an improvised explosive device. ''I'm used to getting shot at now, having tracer rounds hit off my truck. I got ambushed twice on one convoy run.''
Mr. Dreher broke his back in January from driving fast on rough roads, and is back home in Brick, N.J., awaiting surgery. ''When they do a surge, they need more fuel for choppers and tanks,'' he said. ''My buddies who are still there tell me that they have been getting spanked pretty good lately.''
Mark Griffin, a 53-year-old truck driver from Georgia who left Iraq last November, said even then attacks were accelerating. ''It got progressively worse pretty much every month I was there.''
He worked for KBR driving trucks in Anbar Province to supply Marine bases with ammunition, water and other essentials. He said that by late 2006 truck drivers and their Marine convoy escorts were finding 20 to 30 roadside bombs on each convoy trip through Anbar, the restive Sunni heartland. ''The number of I.E.D.'s got worse, and the size and damage got worse, progressively, over time,'' he said.
Labor Department statistics show that deaths and injuries among contractors have risen during times of heightened American military activity. For example, the number of contractors killed from January through March tops the previous quarterly record of 112 killed at the end of 2004, during the American military offensive in Falluja and related operations nearby.
The worsening casualty trends appear to be continuing into the second quarter of this year, as insurgents launch a wave of mortar and rocket attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone, the heavily fortified government center. Earlier this month, for example, two Indians, a Filipino and a Nepalese working for the American Embassy in Baghdad were killed by rocket fire in the Green Zone.
Nearly 300 companies from the United States and around the world supply workers who are a shadow force in Iraq almost as large as the uniformed military. About 126,000 men and women working for contractors serve alongside about 150,000 American troops, the Pentagon has reported. Never before has the United States gone to war with so many civilians on the battlefield doing jobs -- armed guards, military trainers, translators, interrogators, cooks and maintenance workers -- once done only by those in uniform.
In the Persian Gulf war of 1991, for example, only 9,200 contractors -- mostly operating advanced weapons systems -- served alongside 540,000 military personnel. But at the end of the cold war, Congress and the Pentagon were eager to seize on the so-called peace dividend and drastically scale back the standing Army. The Bush administration expanded the outsourcing strategy to unprecedented levels after the invasion of Iraq.
Many contractors in the battle zone say they lack the basic security measures afforded uniformed troops and receive benefits that not only differ from those provided to troops, but also vary by employer. Weekly pay ranges from $60 for Iraqi translators and laborers to $1,800 for truck drivers to as much as $6,000 for private security guards employed by companies like Blackwater. Medical and insurance benefits also vary widely, from excellent to minimal.
Conditions in Iraq are harsh, and many civilians who arrive there, drawn by patriotism, a sense of adventure or the lure of money, are overwhelmed by the environment. If they raise questions about the 12-hour workdays, the lack of armor plating on trucks or the periodic shelling of bases, supervisors often tell them to pack up and go home.
Cynthia I. Morgan, a Tennessee trucker who spent more than a year in Iraq as a convoy commander, said that the common answer from her bosses to such complaints was, ''Aisle or window, chicken or pasta'' -- meaning ''Get on the next plane out of here.''
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