The Pentagon issued new regulations this week governing the conduct of civilian contractors who accompany soldiers overseas, including thousands providing security, fixing equipment and cooking meals in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In explaining changes in the rules, which were proposed in March 2004, the Pentagon said there was an "urgent need" for them. Pentagon and industry officials said yesterday that the rules codify existing policies and informal practices but disagreed about whether they will be enough to address all the difficult issues that have arisen with the increased number of civilians, many of them armed, working in a war zone.
The final regulations, published Thursday in the Federal Register, state, for example, that military "combatant commanders" will establish a plan to protect the civilian workers, unless the company's contract says otherwise. It is also up to the military commander to decide whether the contractors can carry government-issued or privately owned weapons and wear military clothing.
For the first time, the rules will allow the military to track the number of contractors accompanying troops overseas. Some of the provisions do not apply to foreign employees hired by the defense contractors, the explanation of the rule noted. They take effect June 6.
The Pentagon began developing the regulations in 2003 as thousands of contractors left for Iraq and sometimes found themselves unclear on the rules. "There had been small companies showing up thinking that housing and everything would be provided for them," said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association.
The use of contractors in Iraq has been controversial because more than 250 civilians have been killed, many of whom were performing duties that previously had been handled by the military, and because of reports of misspending by some of their companies.
Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has been critical of the role of contractors in the war zone, said in a written statement that issuing the regulations now "means contractors have been operating in Iraq and Afghanistan in a major way without knowing what rules apply to them and without our forces being given clear directives on the chain of command as it relates to contractors." She added: "And this rule does not answer those questions in a meaningful way."
The American Federation of Government Employees had proposed in its comments scaling back the use of the contractors all together. "The bottom line is that contractor personnel can always walk away with relative impunity," Jacqueline Simon, public policy director for the group, said yesterday. "And no rule can change that."
The State Department is working on separate rules that will govern contractors working on some reconstruction projects, the Pentagon said.
One of most controversial issues the rules addressed was whether contractors should be allowed to carry weapons to protect themselves. The proposed rule said they must have the express permission of the combatant commander. Several commenters complained that this was unrealistic, while another expressed concern it would spawn "armies of mercenaries."
United Technologies Corp. said in its comments that allowing contractors to carry weapons issued by the military "may create unmitigated liability for contractors in the event of injury or loss of life resulting from intentional use or accidental discharge of such weapons."
Stan Z. Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a trade group of contractors, noted one provision said that contractors are responsible for educating their employees about U.S. and local laws. "That is a pretty broad prescription" and will be difficult to meet, he said.
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