By Barry Lando
What is striking about the current debate in Washington - whether to "surge" troops to Iraq and increase the size of the U.S. Army - is that roughly 100,000 bodies are missing from the equation: The number of American forces in Iraq is not 140,000, but more like 240,000.
What makes up the difference is the huge army of mercenaries - known these days as "private contractors." After the U.S. Army itself, they are easily the second-largest military force in the country. Yet no one seems sure of how many there are since they answer to no single authority. Indeed, the U.S. Central Command has only recently started taking a census of these battlefield civilians in an attempt to get a handle on the issue...
The private contractors are Americans, South Africans, Brits, Iraqis and a hodgepodge of other nationalities. Many of them are veterans of the U.S. or other armed forces and intelligence services, who are now deployed in Iraq (and Afghanistan and other countries) to perform duties normally carried out by the U.S. Army, but at salaries two or three times greater than those of American soldiers.
They work as interrogators and interpreters in American prisons; body guards for top U.S. and Iraqi officials; trainers for the Iraqi army and police; and engi-neers constructing huge new U.S. bases. They are often on the front lines. In fact, 650 of them have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion
Their salaries, are, in the end, paid directly by the U.S. government - or tacked on as huge additional "security charges" to the bills of private American or other contractors. Yet the Central Command still doesn't have a complete list of who they are or what they are up to. The final figure could be much higher than 100,000.
The U.S. Congress, under Republican control until now, knows even less.
Yet these private contractors man their own helicopters and Humvees and look and act just like American troops.
"It takes a great deal of vigilance on the part of the military commander to en-sure contractor compliance," William L. Nash, a retired general, told the Washington Post. "If you're trying to win hearts and minds and the contractor is driving 90 miles per hour through the streets and running over kids, that's not helping the image of the American army. The Iraqis aren't going to distinguish between a contractor and a soldier."
But who, in the end, do these contractors answer to? The U.S. Central Command? Their company boss? Or the official they've been assigned to protect?
A recent case in point: The former Iraqi minister of electricity, who had been imprisoned on corruption charges, managed to escape in broad daylight in the heavily fortified Green Zone. Iraqi officials claim he was spirited away by con-tractors from a private security detail that had been hired when he was minis-ter.
Which raises another question. Who has jurisdiction over these private contrac-tors if they run afoul of the law in Iraq? Also, are they supposed to follow the Geneva Conventions? Or George W. Bush's conventions?
For instance, according to The New York Times, although 20 civilian contractors working in U.S. prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq - including Abu Ghraib - have been charged with mistreating prisoners, none has ever been successfully prosecuted.
Another point, which brings us back to the discussion about increasing Ameri-can troop levels in Iraq: It would seem that the Pentagon could outsource a "surge" by a simple accounting sleight of hand, quietly contracting for another 10,000 or 20,000 mercenaries to do the job, and the Congress and press would be none the wiser.
Barry Lando, a former 60 Minutes producer, is the author of "Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush." He also blogs at Barrylando.com.
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