100,000 mercenaries, the
By Barry Lando
01/10/07 "Alternet" --- - What is striking about the
current debate in Washington - whether to "surge" troops
to Iraq and increase the size of the U.S. Army - is that
roughly 100,000 bodies are missing from the equation:
The number of American forces in Iraq is not 140,000,
but more like 240,000.
What makes up the difference is the huge army of
mercenaries - known these days as "private contractors."
After the U.S. Army itself, they are easily the
second-largest military force in the country. Yet no one
seems sure of how many there are since they answer to no
single authority. Indeed, the U.S. Central Command has
only recently started taking a census of these
battlefield civilians in an attempt to get a handle on
The private contractors are Americans, South Africans,
Brits, Iraqis and a hodgepodge of other nationalities.
Many of them are veterans of the U.S. or other armed
forces and intelligence services, who are now deployed
in Iraq (and Afghanistan and other countries) to perform
duties normally carried out by the U.S. Army, but at
salaries two or three times greater than those of
They work as interrogators and interpreters in American
prisons; body guards for top U.S. and Iraqi officials;
trainers for the Iraqi army and police; and engi-neers
constructing huge new U.S. bases. They are often on the
front lines. In fact, 650 of them have been killed in
Iraq since the 2003 invasion
Their salaries, are, in the end, paid directly by the
U.S. government - or tacked on as huge additional
"security charges" to the bills of private American or
other contractors. Yet the Central Command still doesn't
have a complete list of who they are or what they are up
to. The final figure could be much higher than 100,000.
The U.S. Congress, under Republican control until now,
knows even less.
Yet these private contractors man their own helicopters
and Humvees and look and act just like American troops.
"It takes a great deal of vigilance on the part of the
military commander to en-sure contractor compliance,"
William L. Nash, a retired general, told the Washington
Post. "If you're trying to win hearts and minds and the
contractor is driving 90 miles per hour through the
streets and running over kids, that's not helping the
image of the American army. The Iraqis aren't going to
distinguish between a contractor and a soldier."
But who, in the end, do these contractors answer to? The
U.S. Central Command? Their company boss? Or the
official they've been assigned to protect?
A recent case in point: The former Iraqi minister of
electricity, who had been imprisoned on corruption
charges, managed to escape in broad daylight in the
heavily fortified Green Zone. Iraqi officials claim he
was spirited away by con-tractors from a private
security detail that had been hired when he was minis-ter.
Which raises another question. Who has jurisdiction over
these private contrac-tors if they run afoul of the law
in Iraq? Also, are they supposed to follow the Geneva
Conventions? Or George W. Bush's conventions?
For instance, according to The New York Times, although
20 civilian contractors working in U.S. prisons in
Afghanistan and Iraq - including Abu Ghraib - have been
charged with mistreating prisoners, none has ever been
Another point, which brings us back to the discussion
about increasing Ameri-can troop levels in Iraq: It
would seem that the Pentagon could outsource a "surge"
by a simple accounting sleight of hand, quietly
contracting for another 10,000 or 20,000 mercenaries to
do the job, and the Congress and press would be none the
Barry Lando, a former 60 Minutes producer, is the author
of "Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in
Iraq from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush." He
also blogs at Barrylando.com.