An Iraqi working for Bechtel Corp. in Baghdad died in a mortar attack last week, the San Francisco construction firm's first known loss to the violence roiling the country.
The man, employed by one of Bechtel's subcontractors, died when a mortar shell exploded inside the Green Zone, an enclave in central Baghdad heavily protected by occupation troops. Bechtel's main base in Iraq lies within the Green Zone, next to occupation headquarters.
Bechtel refused to confirm or deny on Wednesday whether one of its workers had been killed, following a policy of not commenting on company security. But sources close to the situation said the shell hit around 12:30 p. m. on March 18, exploding near the employee, who died of his injuries. His identity was not available Wednesday.
The man's death comes as Iraqi and Western reconstruction workers increasingly find themselves under attack.
Two Finnish businessmen were shot dead Monday en route to a meeting in Baghdad. A drive-by shooting Tuesday in southern Iraq killed nine recruits for the new Iraqi police force. A March 15 attack in Mosul killed Bakersfield relief worker Karen Watson, shot in the back as she sat in a car.
After aiming their rifles, grenades and homemade bombs at occupation forces last year, insurgents now are targeting civilians, said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution fellow and author of "Corporate Warriors," a study of the private military industry.
"It's a very clear strategy right now to target the weak links in the coalition," he said. "And the weak links are Iraqis working for the coalition and contractors."
Although the deaths receive less attention than those of occupation soldiers, several reconstruction companies have lost employees or subcontractors to Iraq's postwar violence.
These deaths have occurred despite security precautions that govern how reconstruction employees live, eat, move and work.
Washington Group International, for example, employs twice as many security guards as it does other subcontractors, although many of them are assigned to protect the power lines the company repairs. Bechtel won't let its employees move from one worksite to the next without guards armed with assault rifles and wearing bullet-proof vests.
Bechtel last year stopped answering questions about employee deaths in Iraq. The company's only previously known loss in Iraq was a subcontract employee who drowned while working at the Umm Qasr seaport.
Company spokesman Jonathan Marshall said Wednesday that the violence in Iraq would not prompt Bechtel to withdraw from the country.
"Our Iraq contracts extend through the end of 2005, and we have no intention of leaving before then," Marshall said in an e-mail.