WASHINGTON—A private security company staffed by former elite U.S. special forces soldiers will provide security at polling places in the United States for people voting in Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary election.
Though U.S. officials said they were unaware of any specific threats to Iraqis voting in the United States or attempts to intimidate them, the hiring of Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group Inc. of Minden, Nev., suggested that there's concern about possible attacks or attempts to intimidate voters.
In Iraq, insurgents have been waging an increasingly bloody campaign of suicide bombings, assassinations and intimidation aimed at crippling the country's first free elections in nearly 50 years. Iraqis are to choose a 275-member interim national assembly, a key element of the Bush administration's strategy for stabilizing the country.
Expatriate Iraqis began registering Monday for three days of balloting beginning Jan. 28 in the Washington suburb of New Carrollton, Md., and in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Nashville, Tenn. An estimated 200,000 Iraqi expatriates living in the United States are thought to be eligible to vote.
In Iraq, SOC-SMG reportedly employs some 300 former U.S. military personnel to protect VIPs, convoys and American contractors involved in disposing of weapons caches. The former special forces soldiers who work for the company are skilled in using a range of weapons, including American- and Soviet-designed light machine guns.
Stopping car bombs and suicide attacks such as those that have been taking place in Iraq requires military weapons, tactics and training that some local police forces don't possess.
In New Carrollton, police guarded the outside of a Ramada Inn where expatriate Iraqis registered to vote Monday. About two dozen squad cars from the Prince George's County police and Maryland State Police were deployed around the hotel's perimeter and in a shopping center's parking lot across the street.
Anyone entering the hotel property had to pass through a police checkpoint and then through a tent at the rear of the grounds for scanning by private security guards waving hand-held metal detectors before being allowed into the hotel's exhibition center to register.
SOC-SMG's chief operation officer, Mike Janke, confirmed in a telephone interview that the International Organization for Migration, the group that's conducting the voting by expatriate Iraqis, had hired his company to help protect U.S. polling stations.
"Because it's a very sensitive thing—what we do—we stay off the radar," he said.
The International Organization for Migration, a private group based in Geneva, works with governments and other organizations to resettle and repatriate refugees. It's the largest group of its kind in the world. The group also is organizing voting for expatriate Iraqis in 13 other countries.
Ahmed Zaidi, an International Organization for Migration official from the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, said SOC-SMG personnel were involved in security arrangements on the hotel grounds.
At the hotel, it was impossible to spot who was working for the company.
Zaidi said he didn't think there were any security threats.
"We are just taking precautions," he said. "We don't want to wait for any incident to happen."
SOC-SMG bills itself on its Web site as a "five-star rated" security firm. Among the clients listed on its Web site are the Pentagon, the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico and private companies including Nike Inc. and Boeing Co.
The company advertises its "core services" as "international force protection, security services, armed protection, threat management, investigation, training, and large-scale security operations."
Patricia Sullivan, a spokeswoman at the command center set up by Prince George's County, said county security officials were unaware that SOC-SMG was involved in the security arrangements.
June Chua, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration's vote-organizing effort in the United States, said the company's activities were being coordinated with federal, state and local officials.
Chua declined to say whether SOC-SMG personnel were working at all U.S. polling locations or to specify what services they would provide and whether they would be armed.
"Security is of the highest priority," she said. "When you think of security, it has been thought out and is on every site."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SECURITY
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050117 USIRAQ voting