The deteriorating security situation in Iraq has prompted the postponement of a US-led trade fair aimed at accelerating reconstruction in the country amid heightening concerns about the safety of foreign civilians working there.
Organisers of Destination Baghdad Expo, that was due to begin on Monday, postponed the event following the gruesome killings on Wednesday of four western contract workers in the city of Falluja.
Paul Bremer, the US-appointed administrator in Iraq, said yesterday that the killings were "a dramatic example of the ongoing struggle between human dignity and barbarism". He said that the deaths would not go unpunished.
The deaths of the contractors, who were employed by a North Carolina-based security company, brought the number of western contractors killed in Iraq in March to 17 - the highest monthly figure since the war began.
Business officials fear that the savage nature of the murders, in which the bodies were mutilated by a mob and then strung from a bridge, could further dampen the private sector's enthusiasm for Iraq projects.
"It has sent a huge chill," a Washington lobbyist who has been involved in Iraq contracts said. "It's really scary."
The insecurity in Iraq has saddled companies with high costs to protect workers, while incidents of sabotage have undone many of their repairs.
Halliburton, the largest US contractor in Iraq, expressed concern about the latest incident, but said it was "resolved to assist the Iraqi people rebuild the country's oil infrastructure and support the US military."
Blackwater Security, which employed the slain contractors, said: "While we feel sadness for our fallen colleagues, we also feel pride and satisfaction that we are making a difference for the people of Iraq."
The Bush administration has repeatedly urged the private sector to become involved in Iraq's rebuilding, touting business opportunities and dangling more than $18bn in contracts before them.
The Baghdad Expo, sponsored by the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce was
billed as the largest of a series of conferences about business opportunities in post-war Iraq. More than 200 companies were scheduled to attend. The event fell into doubt, however, as early as Tuesday as the State Department warned it could not guarantee the safety of people attending the event. No new date was set.
Private security experts had warned in recent months that contractors were becoming more vulnerable, in part, because the military has become more adept at protecting its own personnel.
They were struggling yesterday to determine whether the Falluja attack represented a deliberate campaign against contractors, or a chance encounter.
"It's hard to tell whether they were a target of opportunity, or whether someone was lying in wait for a western contractor," one security consultant said. "If so, that would be a natural evolution of their strategy."
Most US network channels decided that images of the victims' burnt bodies were too graphic to air on national television.