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A noisy column of green camouflage heralds the coming of the new Iraqi Army's first recruits. The would-be soldiers -- young and middle aged, Kurdish, Arab and Turkoman -- march in formation, launch ambushes, fire their weapons and take instruction on the ethics of being good soldiers. The United States occupation authority, proudly displaying the battalion-size set of recruits for the international media, hopes they will eventually grow into a pro-American military that will defend the country from foreign enemies and prevent domestic strife.

But to train them in these critical tasks, the United States isn't turning to its own armed forces but to a group of gray-suited specialists under contract from the Vinnell Corp., a subsidiary of American defense giant Northrop Grumman. Vinnell is one of more than a dozen private military companies, often called PMCs, hired by the Pentagon to augment U.S. forces in Iraq in ways that have occasionally raised the eyebrows of real soldiers and occupation officials. "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 operative. "It shows how embedded the 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 convince other nations to send troops to help secure Iraq, the private military contractors 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 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, Va., 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 that offers "risk management," has the contract to provide armed protection for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation power. DynCorp of Reston, Va., has been hired to help train Iraq's police.

Much of the work conducted by the contractors is secret. Western security officials in Iraq say the companies aren't yet going out on combat operations as they do in Colombia and other countries. Mostly they safeguard sites, but occasionally they are needed for a specific task -- say, quietly snatching a suspected loyalist to Saddam Hussein. "The CIA has recruited ex-military people to do operations in Iraq," said an Iraq-based former U.S. military official who requested anonymity. "These people have security clearances."

Coalition and U.S. military officials say the contractors have the flexibility to do some things quickly that 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.

Employees of Erniys make $88,000 a year, plus benefits -- triple what most soldiers make. A bodyguard from a company like Pilgrims or Securicor can cost as much as $500 a day. Private contractors say their services nevertheless often save money. "The cost of a soldier or officer is very high in training, retirement, medical, education of dependents, etc.," said an official of a Washington, D.C.-area military contractor.

Though contractors don't have to deal with Army red tape, they have their own complications to unravel. Vinnell, for example, has subcontracted most of the Kirkush training to MPRI, an Alexandria, Va., firm that helped train the Croatian and Bosnian armies. Vinnell's compound in Saudi Arabia, where it has worked for a long time, was bombed May 13 and nine of its employees were killed in a suspected al Qaida attack. "They had a very difficult time getting people to work here for them [after that]," said an MPRI employee in Iraq.

Problems at the Kirkush facility, a sprawling campus of brick buildings near the Iranian border, began as soon as trainers and recruits arrived in the summer. The food initially was so bad that many of the trainers threatened to quit, an official at Kirkush wrote in an e-mail correspondence. "One contractor was discovered to have been using an old kerosene tanker to transport water in, and about 50 people got sick," he wrote.

Many coalition soldiers on the ground are squeamish about the private contractors and say they weren't involved in the decision to contract out duties such as training soldiers. They hope the contractors are a temporary fix, and that eventually Iraqis themselves -- including former members of Saddam's Baath Party now barred from joining the military -- will take up the duty. "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 Iraq with their weapons in full view as if they belong to a coalition army. They worry that the private-sector soldiers might not be constricted by the same rules of engagement and that any rogues among them who kill or hurt Iraqis could bring reprisals on all foreign forces. Under current rules of engagement, many U.S. soldiers in volatile regions can open fire on any civilian brandishing a weapon. A coalition military official in Baghdad asked, "What are the rules of engagement [for the private companies]? 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 regarding private military activities in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, responding to a question about them 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, dozens of private soldiers -- many of them well-trained former U.S. or British Special Forces -- are operating in Iraq.

Richard Galustian of Pilgrims, a contractor that provides security for many Western media outlets, said PMCs must register with the Ministry of Interior as well as the coalition authority. He described one incident in which his firms' 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. According to one former Special Forces operative now in Baghdad, military contractors guarding ministries on behalf of the occupation authorities have killed Iraqis seen as 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."

At the Kirkush training facility, the contractors expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of helping, not killing, Iraqis. Almost all the staff there are former U.S. military with security clearances. "All of us came here with feelings of altruism that go way beyond the pay," one of the trainers under the Vinnell contract said in an email. "We have here the best of the best when it comes to what we do. Many of us have been doing this secret stuff for years and know each other from other parts of the world." One even complained that the coalition forces were trying to make it appear as if they and not the contractors were training the new Iraqi recruits. "[They] worked very hard to make it look like a coalition operation," said the official, an employee of one of the contractors working at Kirkush. "Well, it truly isn't. It's all civilians like me."

In Latin America, where the United States has been quietly waging a war against drug lords and anti-government guerrillas for years, the Pentagon has contracted many military duties to private armies for hire -- including combat operations. Many coalition officials hope limits are placed on the use of such contractors in Iraq. "I believe there is much discussion about the use of contractors who are accountable in the right way for some specific functions to do with peacekeeping," said Riley, the British general. "But I think one has to be very careful about where and when contractors are applied. There are very specific circumstances in which they are useful." In Iraq, private contractors lighten the load on U.S. troops. By Borzou Daragahi



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