ORLANDO, Fla. - As the insurgency in Iraq remains strong, the Department of Defense has proposed a new rule for most of the estimated 70,000 civilian contractors working in the region: They cannot carry guns.
Deidre Lee, the Pentagon's director of procurement and acquisition policy, whose office proposed the rule, said it was designed to settle one of the biggest questions facing contractors: "to arm or not to arm."
It is a life-or-death issue because "we don't have the military providing security for our contractors," Lee said.
At the same time, a top department official acknowledged that the war effort was suffering a "brain drain" of civilian workers who were fleeing Iraq because they did not feel safe.
Truck convoys in Iraq are "more like a journey through the wild, wild west," Gen. Darryl A. Scott, director of the Defense Contract Management Agency, told a conference of government and corporate contracting officials in Orlando.
"That's a reality there," he said this week. "People leave every day... . It does make operating in that environment more difficult."
It is unclear how many civilian contractors have fled Iraq and how many have been killed there, because firms are not required to report their casualties or any defections. Halliburton Co. has said 34 of its employees have been killed in the region. Five other deaths of private security guards have been disclosed.
Amid the violence, the Defense Department proposed the rule saying civilian contractors who accompany the military in battle areas cannot carry private firearms unless they receive permission by an order from the chief of U.S. forces in the area.
The restriction, issued March 23, has prompted heated discussions here at the 45th annual convention of the National Contract Management Association.
Many workers in the region are former military personnel and prefer to be armed, said Cathy Etheredge, a manager for BAE Systems, which provides information technology in Afghanistan.
The problem with the proposed rule is that it tells contractors that they are responsible for their security, but then says they cannot be armed, said Nick Sanders, who leads the contract finance committee for the National Defense Industrial Association, a trade group for traditional defense contractors.
"It doesn't appear to be a well-thought-out, coherent policy," Sanders said. "It appears to be a one-way door where contractors will have all the responsibility and cost."
Lee said the proposed rule could change, depending on contractor reaction. The official comment period ends in late May, but there is no timetable for a final regulation. In the meantime, some contractors are carrying guns.
Supporters of the proposed rule, including the biggest contractor in the area, Halliburton's subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), said there were three big drawbacks in allowing contractors to carry weapons:
Armed contractors would be more likely to be shot at or kidnapped. Second, as civilians, they do not follow the same strict rules of force as the military. And by picking up weapons, contractors could lose any death- and accident-insurance coverage they may have.
Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a trade organization that represents many top service-oriented contractors, said the proposed rule was "giving structure to what had been a somewhat gray area."
Dennis Wright, a KBR vice president, said contract employees should be unarmed, but he strongly recommended using armed private security.