IRAQ: Contractors and U.S. forces Align to Share Intelligence and Workload in 'Combat Reconstruction'

The Rock is just one part of the complicated balancing of government, military and private interests all across Iraq every day. On one side are U.S. intelligence officers warily declassifying information. On the other are contractors seeking access to se
Publisher Name: 
The Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD - In a windowless former spy fortress called the "Rock," Iraq's reconstruction is displayed like a deadly web. Red lines on the wall-sized display show dangerous roads: sniper attacks, roadside bombs, kidnappings. The black lines are safer - at least for now.

This is the eyes and ears of the $18.4-billion U.S. plan to rebuild Iraq's shattered infrastructure, where private security companies and American military officers gather daily to swap information about insurgents who target convoys hauling AK-47s for the new Iraqi army, school desks for children and massive power generators to light up cities.

It's also a front in a different sort of battle: the continuing struggle to mesh the U.S. military with the civilian contractors who do an ever greater share of the work in modern warfare.

"The enemy does not distinguish whether you're in uniform or not," said Army Col. Joe Schweitzer, the man in charge of the Rock, shorthand for the Reconstruction Operations Center. "This is combat reconstruction."

Almost unintentionally, the rebuilding of Iraq has become the largest test for the U.S.'s longtime push to outsource jobs once done by the federal government, from routine military tasks to contract oversight to rural development.

As originally envisioned by the Defense Department, private contractors such as Halliburton Co. and Bechtel Group Inc. would rebuild Iraq's oil, energy and other infrastructure for a grateful populace in a time of peace.

Instead, the insurgency exploded and contractors found themselves enmeshed in a vicious war with no clear battle lines. More than 230 contract workers have been killed in Iraq since 2003, according to the latest government figures. Hundreds more have been kidnapped or wounded. Projects from electricity plants to oil pipelines are routinely attacked by mortar fire.

The violence has led to the second-largest armed contingent in Iraq after the U.S. armed forces: private security contractors. The military estimates that there are between 15,000 and 25,000 people, many former military and police officers, who protect about 5,000 foreigners and 100,000 Iraqis who work on U.S. government-funded projects.

Critics worry that the rise in contractors may complicate U.S. policy by diluting government control of the reconstruction effort. But those who move reconstruction through Iraq's daily violence say they could not do so without the private companies.

"Our contractors are not your average contractor. They're like absolute partners," said Victoria Wayne, the deputy director of logistics for the Project and Contracting Office, the agency temporarily in charge of the reconstruction effort. "They have performed above and beyond the call of duty.''

The Rock is just one part of the complicated balancing of government, military and private interests all across Iraq every day.

On one side are U.S. intelligence officers warily declassifying information. On the other side are contractors seeking access to sensitive data to do jobs once done by soldiers: protecting VIPs, transporting goods and guarding vulnerable targets.

All sides are working together, for instance, to develop a system to minimize "friendly fire" incidents between the military and security contractors who travel on the same crowded roads.

The number of car bombs driven into U.S. military convoys has increased and made some troops nervous, and led to U.S. forces shooting and wounding two security contractors.

Col. Schweitzer says he pushes to provide as much intelligence as he can to contractors, and hopes they return the favor by providing him with information.

"It's not a simple problem," he said. "I want to get as close to the threshold as I can."

The sides have become so intertwined that it is often difficult to tell government employee from contractor. At many offices in Iraq, contractors frequently outnumber government employees.

In the northern city of Irbil, for instance, the U.S. Agency for International Development compound houses a handful of its employees and 11 contractor companies that work on such tasks as training Iraqi government officials and hauling electrical generators.

A few hundred yards away from the Rock is the central dispatch center for the reconstruction effort. Here in the fortified Green Zone, in a low trailer surrounded by high concrete blast walls, one U.S. contracting officer works with a half-dozen private employees from four companies.

In Abu Ghraib, a small village of dun-colored buildings outside Baghdad, a U.S. military officer is in charge of operations at a massive walled compound that serves as the central facility for the reconstruction effort.

Squat, 100,000-square-foot warehouses are stacked high with boxes and pallets. The education warehouse holds easels, whiteboards, 3-ring binders and rows of school desks. The health warehouse contains kits to equip an ambulance, generators to keep hospitals running and incubators for premature babies. In the dusty, barren lot outside sit hundreds of new SUVs that are to be distributed among the Iraqi police, army and border patrol.

"We're the Wal-Mart of the Middle East," said U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Sammie Davis Jr.

Kuwait-based PWC, a private firm, holds a multimillion-dollar contract to run and refurbish the Abu Ghraib compound. Other contractors at the facility include security guards, truckers who ship the freight and cooks.

Davis said he has had trouble convincing Iraqi truck drivers to transport loads to more dangerous parts of the country. Unlike soldiers, whom he could order out, the contractors sometimes simply refuse to go.

Nonetheless, Davis said he was not worried about the reconstruction effort's dependence on the contractors.

Although he sleeps, eats and bunks with them, Davis said the lines were clear.

"They know who the boss is," Davis said.

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