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Rebuilding efforts threatened as security firms urge caution

WASHINGTON—Several private security companies in Iraq this week warned their clients working on reconstruction projects to pull out of areas that have become too dangerous. Their retreat could paralyze efforts to rebuild much of Iraq.

In one case, 40 British engineers canceled plans to fly to Baghdad this week. "Until things settle down, they won't be going in," said an official of AKE Limited, the British security firm that trained the workers.

A senior U.S. official in Iraq went so far as to warn on Wednesday that two firms—including Kellogg Brown and Root, the biggest U.S. contractor in Iraq—were "considering withdrawing from the country."

The official warned provisional authority leaders in an e-mail obtained by Knight Ridder that this would result in the "complete collapse of the support infrastructure" of the American rebuilding efforts.

Wendy Hall, spokeswoman for Houston-based Halliburton Inc., KBR's parent company, denied the official's report. "Halliburton is resolved to move forward with the reconstruction effort," she said.

The e-mail headers indicated that the U.S. official's warning went to the Pentagon's Program Management Office in Baghdad. Shane Wolf, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, declined to comment.

The security firms' concerns follow the deaths of dozens of contractor personnel in recent months and reflect their practice of warning their clients against going into dangerous areas.

"Those areas have increased over the last few days because of the so-called uprising," said Tim Meyer, chief executive of the security firm Meyer & Associates, based in Joshua, Texas. "Right now everything is at a standstill."

The head of a British security firm, who asked not to be named because the firm operates covertly, said workers for many of his company's clients no longer show up at reconstruction sites because of security concerns.

"Work has had to be suspended," he told Knight Ridder. "It's just not safe for them to be out there. They don't want to be out there."

Nick Edmunds, head of the Iraq desk at Hart Group Limited in London, confirmed Friday that he had told clients to pull back after a Hart Group guard was killed this week in Kut, south of Baghdad. "Therefore, they have to cancel those activities," Edmunds said.

Will Geddes, managing director of ICP Group Limited, another British security firm, said some private companies that had once been interested in bidding on business in Iraq are reconsidering because of the increased violence.

Many of the security firms advising clients to stay home are British. U.S. firms, both security providers and contractors, are less likely bail out of Iraq because they know they won't get any more U.S. contracts, a senior Bush administration official told Knight Ridder. He spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

The safety of reconstruction workers in Iraq, numbering in the tens of thousands, is important because they're providing essential support in roles that the military used to perform for itself. These include providing food and fuel for U.S. armed forces and security for Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. In addition, the reconstruction of hospitals, schools, water and sewer systems is essential to winning Iraqi support for the U.S.-led occupation.

Unsafe working conditions coupled with instability in the interim government jeopardize the reconstruction effort, said Pete Singer, director of the U.S. Policy Toward the Islamic World Project at the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington policy organization. "You see a lot of companies sitting out, a lot of companies thinking twice."

If reconstruction stops, it will ruin U.S. efforts to win Iraqi support, said Steve Greer, a former U.S. Army special operations sergeant major who now teaches military personnel about insurgency.

"That's why (contractors) are being targeted," Greer said. Insurgents "know if you can take out the (nonprofit organizations helping with reconstruction) and take out the contractors, they know you greatly limit the U.S.'s ability to rebuild the country."

There's no firm number of how many civilians have been killed rebuilding Iraq, partly because private firms rarely publicize deaths. Halliburton has lost 30 of its 24,000 workers in Iraq and Kuwait, spokeswoman Hall said. That would make the on-the-job death rate for those contractors far higher than that for the most dangerous U.S. job, which is flying or navigating aircraft.

In the past month, at least 19 civilian workers—Americans, Canadians, the British, Finns, Bulgarians and South Africans—have been killed in Iraq. On Friday, guerrillas killed two U.S. soldiers and a civilian truck driver just west of Baghdad. A British citizen working for a U.S. security firm was killed northwest of the capital. Last week, four American security guards, employed by Blackwater Security Consulting of Moyock, N.C., were killed and their bodies mutilated.

The death rate for private contractors is higher than for many military units in Iraq, said Singer, author of the book "Corporate Warriors," which tracks the rise in the number of private security firms.

Protecting a contract worker is just as difficult as protecting General (John) Abizaid," the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Asia, Greer said. "Nobody is safe; there's nobody off limits."

Some security contractors have banded to share intelligence about hot spots, Meyer said.

Also, contractors are at a disadvantage because they're prohibited from carrying hand grenades, rockets and heavy machine guns, Singer said.

"They're facing a situation where they are out-gunned," Singer said.

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(Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel and John Walcott contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040409 USIRAQ workers

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