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Lawmakers seek probe of private contractors in Iraq

WASHINGTON—Four years after the invasion of Iraq, Congress still has been unable to grasp the scope of armed security contractors working in that country.

This week, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri and Rep. David Price of North Carolina, both Democrats, asked the Government Accountability Office to provide details on the use of private security contractors in Iraq.

Skelton and Price want to know how many such contractors are working there, for what purpose and under what legal authority. There has been little oversight over cost and operations so far, but many questions.

According to earlier GAO reports, contractors often move into battle zones without the military's knowledge, and the military in turn has done little training for troops on how to deal with private contractors. There are estimated to be as many as 100,000 security contractors working in the country.

"We've said all along that even a good description in this area has been very hard to come by," said Price.

The request is part of a push by Price into the workings of security contractors. He has introduced a bill that would include private contractors in military law overseas, provide more transparency to Congress and improve coordination between contractors and the military.

A GAO spokesman said the agency likely will decide next week how to move ahead on the request. But with Skelton's name on it, the letter likely will gain a high priority.

Private security contractors perform a host of duties in Iraq. They guard dignitaries, including visiting members of Congress. They patrol the gates and perimeters of military bases. And they guard other private contractors working on everything from food convoys to reconstruction crews. Many security contractors are former Special Forces troops now working for hundreds of dollars a day.

Private contractors' work became known most vividly after an ambush in Fallujah against security contractors working for Blackwater USA of Moyock, N.C., in 2004. Two contractors' charred bodies were hung from a bridge in images broadcast worldwide.

Blackwater is among the most well-known and largest companies feeding armed security workers into Iraq, but there are many others.

"The real problem is the U.S. military is not large enough to perform all the tasks the military wants performed," said Steven Schooner, co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University. "It's a huge, huge issue."

But, Schooner said, Congress should worry more about the command-and-control problem than focus solely on issues of cost.

"Members of Congress have no idea whatsoever what's going on over there," Schooner said. "I think oversight is a huge issue. Who's in charge over there? What's the quality-control standard? Those are the big issues they haven't gotten addressed."

Doug Brooks, director of the International Peace Operations Association, the trade group for security contractors, said coordination has improved in recent years. A command center in Baghdad has a map of private convoys moving through the country, for example.

He testified to Congress this week that the companies' main problem was a revolving door of government contracting officers who make contract changes difficult.

Still, Brooks welcomed a new GAO report and said that, for the most part, his group supports Price's bill.

"Good oversight is good for good companies," Brooks said.

Skelton was unavailable Friday for comment, but he said in a prepared statement that a GAO review would "boost Congress' ability to provide thorough oversight to the billions being spent there."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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