US: Rules Tightened for Contractors in Combat Zones

The new rules mandate background checks and permission from the military before a contractor can carry a weapon, and they spell out conditions for medical care and evacuation. At least 524 U.S. military contract workers, many of them Iraqis, have been ki
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Oct. 27 -- The Pentagon has tightened the rules for its contractors in combat zones to increase their security, improve coordination with the U.S. military and guard against abuses such as those that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The new rules mandate background checks and permission from the military before a contractor can carry a weapon, and they spell out conditions for medical care and evacuation. At least 524 U.S. military contract workers, many of them Iraqis, have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

The changes were spurred by congressional concern over the prison scandal, the March 2004 deaths of four security guards working for Blackwater USA in Fallujah and growing unease as contractors assume more military tasks in combat zones like Iraq that have no front lines, an analyst said.

``The results in Iraq have been mixed,'' said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution analyst who's studied the subject. ``Some of the major benefits are in taking on roles the military didn't have the manpower to do, but at the same time there are major problems of unclear control over contractors, poorly thought-out contract procedures and management.''

The regulations are ``really a great start in finally establishing how the Defense Department should be dealing with contractors,'' but there are gray legal areas that need attention, Singer said.

Singer questioned how soon the Pentagon can implement the new regulations because doing so requires reopening existing contracts. The new rules apply automatically to all new Pentagon contracts for contractors in any area.

Contractors Back Changes

The International Peace Operations Association, a nonprofit group that represents 14 security, consulting and reconstruction firms, including Moyock, North Carolina-based Blackwater, supports the new regulations, said Doug Brooks, the group's president.

They were necessary even if the U.S. was not fighting in Iraq, he said.

``The instructions largely codify many of the lessons learned and existing practices,'' Brooks said, ``We support strong oversight,'' he said. ``Iraq is one time, one place. From a business perspective, we like to know what the rules are.''

Twenty-five Blackwater workers have been killed in Iraq. San Diego, California-based Titan Corp., which provides military translators, has lost 148, the most among the 43 companies that have filed death-benefit claims with the Labor Department.

An Iraqi subcontractor for Burlingame, California-based Environmental Chemical Corp., a company that dismantles and cleans up ammunition dumps the U.S. seized after the war, had a death toll of 22 in one incident. The workers died Dec. 5 when insurgents attacked the bus they were riding to a dump near Tikrit.

Worker-Soldier Ratio

The new rules do not cover workers operating under Iraq reconstruction contracts awarded by the State Department and its Agency for International Development.

Singer estimates that the military employs one private worker for every four to five soldiers in Iraq. That's up from one for every 90 to 100 soldiers in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and one for every eight during the height of U.S. operations in Bosnia as the military started turning over more logistics work to private contractors.

One civilian contractor supported every six soldiers during both World War II and the Vietnam War, according to a 1998 article Major James Althouse wrote for the Army Logistics Management College.

Taking on More

What's new is that military contractors in Iraq and Kuwait are taking jobs previously done by the military, such as food and laundry service, setting up camps, shipping supplies, protecting bases and even maintaining major weapons systems, Singer said.

The new regulations include ``everything from background security checks, the arming of contractors, rules about the medical care and evacuation to rules clearly stating'' they should carry a card that says they should be covered under the Geneva Convention, said Thomas Carter, of the Pentagon's Logistics and Management division.

Carter worked on the regulations for two years with the Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff.

``It's a proactive approach'' that gives contractors ``a much more black and white picture of how they will be supported,'' Carter said.

Contractors are required to coordinate their movement in a battle zone with the local military commanders and are entitled to receive regular updates on potential threats in order to prevent a repeat of the Fallujah killings, according to Carter.

The regulations also address congressional concerns stemming from the Abu Ghraib scandal. Four private contractors working as interrogators or assisting military police were among those involved in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. None of the contractors has been indicted or legally sanctioned so far.

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