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No U.S. Troops, But An Army Of Contractors In Iraq

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The U.S. troops have left Iraq, and U.S. diplomats will now be the face of America in a country that remains extremely volatile.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, along with several consulates, will have some 15,000 workers, making it the largest U.S. diplomatic operation abroad. Those diplomats will be protected by a private army consisting of as many as 5,000 security contractors who will carry assault weapons and fly armed helicopters.

Embassy personnel will ride in armored vehicles with armed guards, who work for companies with names like Triple Canopy and Global Strategies Group.

Their convoys will be watched from above. Another company, DynCorp International, will fly helicopters equipped with heavy machine guns.

"Yes, we will have security contractors in Iraq," says Patrick Kennedy, the State Department official overseeing the security force. "But if you go back a year, the Department of Defense had around 17,000 security contractors in Iraq along with 150,000 or so armed service men and women."

Kennedy insists those security guards will be nothing like the Army and Marine Corps.

"We run. We go. We do not stand and fight," Kennedy says. "We will execute a high-speed U-turn and get as far away from the attackers as we possibly can."

Enough Oversight?

But Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official, doesn't think that's so realistic.

"If you're coming under fire and you happen to have a gun in your hand, you're a former military person — are you really going to cut and run?" Zakheim said.

Zakheim served on the Commission on Wartime Contracting. That commission questioned whether it's wise to hire a private army for Iraq and whether the State Department can oversee thousands of security guards.

"First of all, there's going to be so many of them, and so few people from the State Department to supervise them," he said.

Kennedy, the State Department official, insists there will be enough oversight. Each time a U.S. diplomatic convoy moves out in Iraq, he says, a federal government supervisor will go along. And that federal agent, says Kennedy, will have complete authority should a convoy come under attack.

"The order to fire is given by that U.S. government, State Department security professional," he says. "So the contractors just don't open fire."

But private security contractors did fire back in 2007 while protecting a State Department convoy in Baghdad. Seventeen Iraqis were killed by guards working for the company then-called Blackwater.

The shooting created a major controversy, and a U.S. investigation later found the convoy was not under threat.

The State Department has a shaky record overseeing armed guards. A recent congressional study found that many contractor abuses in Iraq during the war were caused by those working for the State Department, not the military.

"This isn't what the State Department does for a living. This isn't part of their culture," says Zakheim. "They are being thrown into something that they have never managed before."

Modest Existing Force

The State Department already has its own security force that protects diplomats — the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. But that force of 2,000 covers the entire world.

Zakheim says that in the short term, the State Department should reach out to the Pentagon to come up with more inspectors and more auditors to help oversee the contractor security force in Iraq.

For now, that contractor force doesn't include Blackwater — which has just renamed itself for a second time and is now called Academi.

But the company's president, Ted Wright, says, "What we'd like to do is follow through with all our changes so that we can do business in Iraq in the future."

Iraq has so far barred the company from doing business; it hasn't forgotten that those Blackwater security guards opened fire in Baghdad.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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