This past week was a particularly bloody one for U.S. soldiers in Iraq. But the conflict has also been deadly for the armies of private contractors who support the U.S. military effort--and Iraq's stalled reconstruction work.
It has been difficult, however, to assess the civilian toll. While the U.S. military keeps a running tally of military (and Pentagon civilian) casualties, few official statistics have been available on contractors.
Now, in a report the Pentagon submitted to Congress earlier this year, some partial figures have been released. From May 2003 through October 2004, U.S. authorities recorded at least 1,171 contractor casualties, including 166 contractors who were killed. Of the dead, 64 were Americans (out of a total of 175 U.S. contractor casualties). In the same period, more than 220 U.S. soldiers were killed out of a total of nearly 1,500 casualties. The Pentagon acknowledges the figures may not be complete because officials have not been tracking contractor casualties systematically. The figures also do not cover the most violent part of the war. The violence has worsened over the past year as the insurgency has grown increasingly persistent.
The new numbers come from an unclassified report that the Pentagon was required to compile by the 2005 Defense Authorization Act but that has not been released publicly. It was first obtained by David Isenberg, a security analyst, and then posted on the website of the Federation of American Scientists.
The Iraq conflict has broken new ground with the U.S. government's unusually high reliance on the work of private companies, many of which perform military or quasi-military tasks like convoy security. Private guards secure the majority of major reconstruction projects and provide security for many U.S. government agencies operating in Iraq. The report covers the sensitive issue of the Pentagon's relationship with these companies, which often bring in their own firepower for protection. Many of these contractors have been dogged by allegations that their employees are sometimes undisciplined and have on occasion fired on Iraq civilians.
Iraqis, for their part, are scared by the convoys of contractor SUVs that blaze through the streets of Baghdad with guns bristling out the windows. Some U.S. soldiers also resent the contractors, who are paid dramatically higher salaries for their services. Separately, contractors have also been tarnished by allegations of corruption and overcharging for their services.
The Pentagon does try to distance itself slightly from the contractors.
"The interaction between U.S. military forces and security contractors in Iraq is one of coordination rather than control because private security contractors have no direct contractual relationship with the commander," the report says. In addition, "any contractors who employ personnel in critical security roles are responsible for ensuring compliance by such employees with the terms and conditions of the contract." Such language is likely to do little to quell the concerns of some experts who decry the lack of supervision and accountability of these private contractors.
In a report last month, the Government Accountability Office also criticized the lack of coordination between the military and private contractors.
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