DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- There are 50,000 to 100,000 contractors working in Iraq, experts believe, though reliable estimates are hard to come by.
Private security personnel are thought to account for as many as 20,000 of those, or more than all U.S. coalition partners together.
The number of contractors killed is just as difficult to pin down, partly because the employers often keep the deaths quiet. The U.S. military death toll, now over 1,620, would be higher but for the number of military tasks contracted out to the private sector, say analysts.
''Outsourcing troops not only outsources costs and capabilities, but also casualties,'' said Peter W. Singer, who specializes in the topic for the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Security firms ''have sent more troops and taken more casualties than all of our other reluctant allies combined.''
The U.S. Labor Department reports at least 305 cases where death benefits have been claimed for private contractors working in Iraq many by families of Iraqis who worked for U.S. companies, but the Labor Department wouldn't provide a breakdown by nationality. The total number of contractors killed is larger, but the true figure is difficult to estimate because many firms don't publicize workers' deaths and the U.S. government statistics aren't comprehensive.
Contractors have been killed in convoy ambushes, mortar attacks on U.S. bases, gruesome beheadings by kidnappers, car accidents, and even by U.S. troops shooting by mistake.
They're often on the front lines with jobs that include private security guards; technicians struggling to rebuild Iraq's battered infrastructure and oil sector; and laborers, consultants and translators catering to the needs of the U.S. military and Iraqi government.
Few aspects of the multibillion-dollar contracting effort in Iraq are made public. A report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office in April found that monitoring of civilian contractors in Iraq was so poor that there was no way to determine how many contractors are working on U.S.-related security and reconstruction projects in Iraq or how many have been killed.
Even if companies' initial contracts with the Pentagon are publicized, work is subcontracted and sub-subcontracted until the chain of responsibility disappears.
''The deals are sometimes done by the shake of a hand or a verbal agreement,'' said Nick Arnold, head of projects for Global Risk Strategies, the firm that runs security in Baghdad's Green Zone and airport. ''It might be five subcontracts down the line before you provide a service.''
The U.S. Congress has tried to document the extent of private contractors' work and casualties. A bill introduced in April seeks tighter standards, including collecting estimated costs, number of workers required, training necessary, and contractors' deaths and injuries.
The National Defense Authorization Act already requires the U.S. defense secretary to provide a report to Congress that would include casualty and fatality figures for contractor employees supporting deployed forces and reconstruction efforts in Iraq. But the Pentagon missed its April 29 deadline to submit its latest report.
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