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Originally published September 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 20, 2007 at 2:09 AM

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In Iraq, private contractors outnumber U.S. troops

The United States has assembled an imposing industrial army in Iraq that's larger than its uniformed fighting force and is responsible for...

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The United States has assembled an imposing industrial army in Iraq that's larger than its uniformed fighting force and is responsible for such a broad swath of responsibilities that the military might not be able to operate without its private-sector partners.

More than 180,000 Americans, Iraqis and nationals from other countries work under federal contracts to provide security, gather intelligence, build roads, improve infrastructure, forge a financial system and transport needed supplies in a country the size of California.

That figure contrasts with the 163,100 U.S. military personnel, according to U.S. Central Command, responsible for military operations in the Middle East. The Pentagon puts the military figure at 169,000. An additional 12,400 coalition forces are stationed in Iraq.

The heavy reliance on contractors in a war zone is in the spotlight after employees for Blackwater USA, a security company, were involved in a weekend shooting that left at least 11 Iraqis dead.

The situation is partly the result of a post-Cold War shrinking of the armed forces and the Bush administration's preference for contracting out government functions to the corporate world.

It's also due to the compressed nature of the Iraq war. Combat operations are ongoing at the same time as reconstruction of Iraq's infrastructure and various economic development efforts.

While having contractors on and around the battlefield is not new, the situation in Iraq raises questions about whether U.S. troops have become so dependent on contract help that they could not function properly without it.

"If the contractors turn tail and run, we've still got to be able to fight," said Steve Schooner, co-director of the government procurement law program at The George Washington University and a former military lawyer.

The presence of thousands of private-sector security guards adds another component to the debate. Employees for Blackwater and other companies are engaging the enemy in combat, a sharp departure from previous conflicts.

"It's pretty clear that line has been crossed in Iraq," Schooner said. "And it's been crossed because we don't have enough horses left, and we have all kinds of problems in terms of coordination."

As the military leans on the private sector, there's a push to hold contract employees to the same legal standards as military personnel.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., has sponsored two bills that would bring all U.S. security contractors under federal criminal codes — the FBI would be required to set up units in Iraq to investigate suspected misconduct — and require that the U.S. government provide more information about the cost and duties of private contractors.

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Price also has inserted rules in the defense authorization bill, now being debated in the Senate, to set standards for the rules of engagement and hiring of private-security contractors, along with improved communication between contractors and the military.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has included many of the same provisions in an amendment he filed in the Senate to the defense authorization bill.

Republicans in Congress also have made similar efforts. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., last year inserted into the defense-authorization bill a clause that made contractors working with the U.S. military subject to courts-martial.

But the Pentagon hasn't drawn up specific guidelines, according to Peter Singer, a security expert with the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank in Washington.

"One suspects that contractors are being used to mask the true extent of our involvement in Iraq," Price said Wednesday. "How else are you going to interpret it when the number of contractors exceeds the number of troops?"

Groups representing federal contractors rejected the idea the war is being outsourced.

"Normally this would be a sequential process," said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a trade association of the federal government's professional- and technical-services industry. "You achieve a degree of security, and then you start reconstruction, and then you build the infrastructure. But it's all being done at the same time, which is one of the reasons the number [of contractors] is so high."

According to Central Command, 137,000 contractors are working in Iraq under Defense Department contracts. Under separate contracts, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development employ thousands more.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Wednesday that military contractors fill necessary roles that would distract combat troops from their primary mission.

"You don't necessarily need to take a rifleman and turn him into a cook if you can contract for a cook," he said.

Angela Styles, director of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2003, said the challenge is determining where to draw the line.

If it is strictly a combat operation, the military can sustain itself, she said. In Iraq, where several missions are jumbled together, the answer is different.

"Could the military function without contractors on a sheer military mission? I think so," Styles said. "But could they in a reconstruction mission? No."

Associated Press reporters Pauline Jelinek and Matthew Lee contributed to this report. Details on legislation were provided by McClatchy Newspapers.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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