Under assault by insurgents and unable to rely on U.S. and coalition troops for intelligence or help under duress, private security firms in Iraq have begun to band together in the past 48 hours, organizing what may effectively be the largest private army in the world, with its own rescue teams and pooled, sensitive intelligence.
Many of the firms were hired by the U.S. government to protect its employees in Iraq. But because the contracts are managed by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the coordination between the CPA and the U.S. military is limited, and by their accounts inadequate, the contractors have no direct line to the armed forces. Most of the firms' employees are military veterans themselves, and they often depend on their network of colleagues still in uniform for coordination and intelligence.
"There is no formal arrangement for intelligence-sharing," Col. Jill Morgenthaler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military command headquarters in Baghdad, said in an e-mail in response to questions. "However, ad hoc relationships are in place so that contractors can learn of dangerous areas or situations."
The demand for a private security force in Iraq has increased since the war ended, said officials with the CPA, the U.S.-led authority that is running the occupation of Iraq. There are about 20,000 private security contractors in Iraq now, including Americans, Iraqis and other foreigners. That number is expected to grow to 30,000 in the near future when the U.S. troop presence is drawn down after the June 30 handover to Iraqi authorities.
The presence of so many armed security contractors in a hot combat zone is unprecedented in U.S. history, according to government officials and industry experts.
In the past, "we've been careful about where and when we arm civilians who accompany the troops because we don't want to inadvertently turn them into soldiers, even by what we have them wear," said Col. Thomas McShane, an instructor at the Army War College.
As the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated in recent days, the security contract workers have been exposed to some of the same dangers U.S. soldiers face -- and have defended their posts as soldiers would, but without the support of the military with which they share the battlefield.
While U.S. and coalition military forces fought rebellions in a half-dozen cities yesterday, the body of a contract worker, employed to guard the power lines of the Iraqi ministry of electricity, was extracted from a rooftop in Kut by his firm's Iraqi interpreter after he bled to death, according to government and industry officials.
The dead man, a Western employee of London-based Hart Group Ltd., had been pinned down on the rooftop of the house he and four colleagues had been occupying Tuesday night when insurgents overran the house. The other four were wounded.
"We were holding out, hoping to get direct military support that never came," said Nick Edmunds, Iraq coordinator for Hart, whose employees were operating in an area under Ukrainian military control. Other sources said Hart employees called U.S. and Ukrainian military forces so many times during the siege that the battery on their mobile phone ran out.
That same night, armed employees of two other firms, Control Risk Group and Triple Canopy, were also surrounded and attacked, according to U.S. government and industry sources.
In all three instances, U.S. and coalition military forces were called for help but did not respond in a timely manner, according to U.S. government and industry accounts. The private commandos fought for hours and eventually were able to "self-evacuate," said one U.S. official, who asked not to be named.
Asked last night to explain why U.S. and coalition forces had not responded to requests for help, a Pentagon spokesman referred the question to commanders in Iraq, who could not be reached for comment because of the time difference.
On Monday, eight commandos from Blackwater Security Consulting repulsed an attack by the militiamen of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr against the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters in Najaf. After hours of calling the U.S. military and CPA for backup, Blackwater sent in its own helicopters -- twice -- to ferry ammunition in and carry a wounded Marine to safety, according to U.S. government and industry sources familiar with the incident.
A week ago, four Blackwater commandos -- all former members of U.S. Special Forces working on a contract to protect a private food company in Iraq -- were killed and mutilated in Fallujah. U.S. government and industry sources believe a member of the Iraqi police helped set up the ambush of the two unarmored cars the men were using.
The U.S. military does not have enough specially trained troops or Iraqi police officers to guard its civilian employees, said defense and CPA officials. As a result, the U.S. government has turned increasingly to private firms. Blackwater even provides personal security to U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer.
The Bremer detail, said Peter W. Singer, a private military expert at the Brookings Institution, illustrates the extent to which the military is breaking new ground, even amending its long-held doctrine that the "U.S. military does not turn over mission-critical functions to private contractors," Singer said. "And you don't put contractors in positions where they need to carry weapons. . . . A private armed contractor now has the job of keeping Paul Bremer alive -- it can't get much more mission-critical than that."
Some Defense Department officials are concerned that private commandos are not subject to adequate oversight. There is no government vetting of contract workers who carry weapons. "The CPA has let all kinds of contracts to all kinds of people," said one senior Defense Department official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. "It's blindsided us."
The CPA's program management office has sought bids for a project to coordinate security among the 10 largest prime contractors and their subcontractors working on U.S.-backed reconstruction projects worth $18.4 billion. But the bids are still under review. In the meantime, the office is "trying to get at least some level of intelligence sanitized from the military that could be given to contractors," said Capt. Bruce A. Cole, spokesman for the program management office in Baghdad. That has not happened yet.
The firms, stunned by the casualties they suffered this week and by the lack of a military response, have begun banding together to share their own operations-center telephone numbers and tips on threats, as well as to organize ways to rescue one another in a crisis.
"There is absolutely a growing cooperation along unofficial lines," Edmunds said. "We try to give each other warnings about things we hear are about to happen."
"Each private firm amounts to an individual battalion," said one U.S. government official familiar with the developments. "Now they are all coming together to build the largest security organization in the world."
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