Monday, October 6, 2003

KIRKUSH, Iraq — The use by the Pentagon of more than a dozen private security companies to guard key installations and train a new Iraqi army has helped extend U.S. military resources but raised concern among some active-duty soldiers and civilian U.S. officials.

That trend was on display recently here in northeastern Iraq, where the U.S. authority proudly displayed a battalion-size set of recruits it hopes will form the core of a new pro-American Iraqi army.

The camouflage-clad recruits — young and middle-aged, Kurdish, Arab and Turkoman — marched in formation, launched ambushes and fired their weapons for a group of visiting reporters.

But their training was being handled not by U.S. forces but a group of gray-suited specialists under contract from the Vinnell Corp., a subsidiary of American defense giant Northrop Grumman. Vinnell, in turn, has subcontracted most of the Kirkush training to MPRI, an Alexandria firm that helped train the new Croatian and Bosnian armies.

“The Iraqi army is such an essential component for the future of Iraq in terms of avoiding civil war,” said Rex Wempen, a Baghdad-based security consultant and former Special Forces member. “It shows how embedded the [private military contractors, or PMCs] are in the thinking of the Department of Defense that they would use them to train that army.”

At a time when the overstretched U.S. military is struggling to persuade other nations to send troops to help secure Iraq, PMCs can relieve some of the pressure on American forces.

“If you’re going to keep the number of troops down, this is the way to do it,” said Mr. Wempen. “The expense is the same or more. But politically it’s much less expensive.”

Staffed by ex-military personnel, the private firms are playing an increasingly visible role in Iraq:

• Armed employees of Custer Battles, a Fairfax firm, guard Baghdad airport, manning the type of checkpoints often operated by American soldiers.

• Erinys, a British company with offices in the Middle East and South Africa, guards the oil fields.

• Global Risk, a British firm offering “risk management” advice, has the contract to provide armed protection for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led power.

• DynCorp of Reston has been hired to help train Iraq’s police.

Much of the work is conducted by former soldiers who retain high security clearances, said an Iraq-based former U.S. military official who requested anonymity.

Western security officials in Iraq say the companies generally do not engage in combat operations as they do in Colombia and other countries, but occasionally they are used for a specific task, such as quietly snatching a suspected Saddam Hussein loyalist.

Coalition and U.S. military officials say the contractors have the flexibility to do some things quickly that the armed forces simply can’t.

“They could be got here quickly,” said British Brig. Jonathon Riley. “The U.S. or Britain didn’t have to deploy another combat brigade to take this task.”

Contractors also can cast a wider net in hiring, helping to internationalize the forces in Iraq even as U.S. attempts to attract more foreign troops stall.

“We’re trying to get more international participation here and the contractors can hire internationally,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Johnny Monds, one of the coalition soldiers in Kirkush.

But many coalition soldiers are squeamish about the private contractors and say they hope their role will be temporary.

“This is a very touchy issue,” said a high-level coalition military official who opposes expanded use of private soldiers in Iraq. “There’s a lot of pressure to use these contractors. Some oppose it. Some support it.”

Some soldiers said privately that the soldiers-for-hire walk around with their weapons in full view as if they belong to a coalition army. They worry that the private-sector soldiers might not be constrained by the same rules of engagement and that any rogues among them who kill or hurt Iraqis could bring reprisals on all foreign forces.

“What are the rules of engagement [for the PMCs]?” asked one coalition military official in Baghdad. “Are they civilians or are they military? I don’t know who they are, and I don’t want to go anywhere near them.”

The Coalition Provisional Authority did not respond to several formal requests for information about private military activities in Iraq. The coalition military commander in Iraq, U.S. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, responding to a question at a press conference several weeks ago, said he did not know of any plans to use contractors to perform security functions for the military.

On the ground, however, the private soldiers are occasionally finding themselves in firefights with Iraqis.

Richard Galustian of Pilgrims, a contractor that provides security for many Western media outlets, described one incident in which his firm’s security officials opened fire on a group of suspected bandits along the road from Baghdad to the Jordanian border. “Certainly at least one or two people were hit,” he said.

A former Special Forces member now in Baghdad said military contractors guarding ministries on behalf of coalition authorities have killed Iraqis who were trying to loot or attack the buildings.

“It’s Iraq,” he said. “You’re accountable to nobody. But I guess ultimately you’re accountable to the U.S. military for what happens.”

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