Monday, May 21, 2007


Casualties among privare contractors in Iraq soar

(New York Times) - Casualties among private contractors in Iraq have soared to record levels this year, setting a pace that seems certain to turn 2007 into the bloodiest year yet for the civilians who work alongside the American military in the war zone, according to new government numbers.
At least 146 contract workers were killed in Iraq in the first three months of the year, by far the highest number for any quarter since the war began in March 2003, according to the Labor Department, which processes death and injury claims for those working as United States government contractors in Iraq. That brings the total number of contractors killed in Iraq to at least 917, along with more than 12,000 wounded in battle or injured on the job, according to government figures and dozens of interviews.
The numbers, which have not been previously reported, disclose the extent to which contractors — Americans, Iraqis and workers from more than three dozen other countries — are largely hidden casualties of the war, and now are facing increased risks alongside American soldiers and marines as President Bush’s plan to increase troop levels in Baghdad takes hold.
As troops patrol more aggressively in and around the capital, both soldiers and the contractors who support them, often at small outposts, are at greater peril. The contractor deaths earlier this year, for example, came closer to the number of American military deaths during the same period — 244 — than during any other quarter since the war began, according to official figures.
“The insurgents are going after the softest targets, and the contractors are softer targets than the military,” said Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense for manpower during the Reagan administration. “The U.S. is being more aggressive over there, and these contractor deaths go right along with it.”
Truck drivers and translators account for a significant share of the casualties, but the recent death toll includes others who make up what amounts to a private army. Among them were four American security guards who died in a helicopter crash in January, 28 Turkish construction workers whose plane crashed north of Baghdad the same month, a Massachusetts man who was blown up as he dismantled munitions for an American company in March and a Georgia woman killed in a missile attack in March while working as a coordinator for KBR, the contracting company.
Military officials in Washington and Baghdad said that no Pentagon office tracked contractor casualties and that they had no way to confirm or explain the sharp rise in deaths this year. Companies that have lost workers in Iraq were generally unresponsive to questions about the numbers of deaths and the circumstances that led to casualties. None acknowledged that they had seen an increase this year.
But a spokesman for American International Group, the insurance company that covers about 80 percent of the contractor work force in Iraq, said it had seen a sharp increase in death and injury claims in recent months. The Labor Department records show that in addition to the 146 dead in the first three months this year, another 3,430 contractors filed claims for wounds or injuries suffered in Iraq, also a quarterly record. The number of casualties, though, may be much higher because the government’s statistical database is not complete.
American military casualties in Iraq have mounted to almost 3,400 dead. The new contractor statistics suggest that for every four American soldiers or marines who die in Iraq, a contractor is killed. Nearly 300 companies from the United States and around the world supply workers who are a shadow force in Iraq almost as large as the uniformed military. About 126,000 men and women working for contractors serve alongside about 150,000 American troops, the Pentagon has reported. Never before has the United States gone to war with so many civilians on the battlefield doing jobs — armed guards, military trainers, translators, interrogators, cooks and maintenance workers — once done only by those in uniform.
Many contractors in the battle zone say they lack the basic security measures afforded uniformed troops and receive benefits that not only differ from those provided to troops, but also vary by employer. Weekly pay ranges from $60 for Iraqi translators and laborers to $1,800 for truck drivers to as much as $6,000 for private security guards employed by companies like Blackwater. Medical and insurance benefits also vary widely, from excellent to minimal.

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