BAGHDAD -- Iraqi officials say security inside Baghdad's heavily fortified green zone could be compromised by the turnover this week of broad security duties from a British-run to an American-run private company.
"I am telling the State Department that we are really worried at this switch-over, which could not have been happening at a more sensitive moment in Iraq's political and security situation," said Bashar al-Naher, an adviser to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and his Islamic Dawa Party.
"The timing is deeply unfortunate," Mr. al-Naher said in a telephone interview from Washington, where he held talks on Tuesday with State Department officials.
The State Department coordinates with U.S. Central Command on the provision of security inside the green zone, or international zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies and the fledgling Iraqi government, as well as many Western specialists and contractors.
Though the entrances and perimeters of the zone are patrolled by Iraqi forces and some coalition troops, much of the interior -- including the embassies and the 12-story Council of Ministers building -- is guarded by a private security company.
British-based Global Strategies Group lost the contract for the job in an open bidding process and handed over responsibility on Tuesday to Triple Canopy Inc., a Virginia-based company formed after the 2003 Iraq war by Delta Force veterans.
Several security operatives said they are worried about the wholesale change in personnel at a time when insurgents and terrorists are expected to step up attacks before parliamentary elections on Dec. 15.
"It takes a great deal of time for a guard to come across a whole gamut of different scenarios and to have stood at all sorts of different posts," said one Western security adviser, who declined to be named because of a desire to do business with the U.S. government in future.
"The sad fact is that when a formation changes, that is the most vulnerable time for that location ... as happened for a few weeks in Baghdad" after the 1st U.S. Cavalry took charge in the city from the Marines in 2003.
Another concern is that Triple Canopy employees have been recruited mainly in Latin America and speak little English. Global Strategies relies heavily on British-trained Nepalese Gurkhas and Sri Lankans, a majority of whom speak at least some English and often speak it well.
"A delay in communicating a problem because the guard cannot speak English down his walkie-talkie can have fatal consequences," said a security specialist familiar with procedures in Baghdad.
Yet another worry is over internal discipline. Fights already have broken out between Peruvian and Chilean guards, according to an American businessman living inside the green zone. "Apparently they had some scores to settle from past conflicts in that continent," he said.
Mr. al-Naher proposed that Triple Canopy beef up its forces by hiring several hundred of the outgoing guards until after Dec. 15, but there was no evidence that is being done.
Repeated attempts to interview Triple Canopy officials were unsuccessful. A spokesman reached yesterday at the company's headquarters in Herndon, Va., referred all queries to the State Department, which approved the contract.
Officials with Global Strategies, which continues to provide security at Baghdad airport, were reluctant to criticize either Triple Canopy or the bidding process. Other industry sources said the bidding procedure seemed to have been flawless, though labyrinthine.
However, green zone regulars said the new company's guards will be hard-pressed to match the work of Global Strategies' guards, who were known for their diligence in body-searching even senior officials and government ministers.
"Global's people became unpopular for being so thorough," said a security source. "The temptation for the next group is to relax a little and please the officials -- and that could be disastrous."
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