Contractor Deaths Up 17 Percent Across Iraq In 2007

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Houston Chronicle
February 10, 2008 As 'surge' took effect, spike in killings subsided
By David Ivanovich, Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The number of civilian contractors reported killed in Iraq jumped 17 percent in 2007 and accounted for more than one in four deaths associated with the U.S. occupation last year.
In a year when President Bush sent 30,000 additional troops into Iraq in what's been called the "surge," at least 353 civilian contractors working for the U.S. government were killed, up from 301 in 2006, Labor Department records show.
"Incredible," replied Steven Schooner, a law professor and associate dean at the George Washington University Law School, when told of the contractor death toll.
U.S. military personnel suffered their deadliest year of the war in 2007, but both contractor and troop deaths began declining dramatically in the second half of the year, according to various tallies examined by the Houston Chronicle.
And Houston-based KBR, the Pentagon's largest contractor in Iraq, escaped the worst of last year's carnage.
Military planners didn't anticipate contractors would represent such a high percentage of fatalities when they were privatizing functions once performed by uniformed personnel, said Schooner, an expert in federal procurement law and military contracting issues.
Yet these contractor casualties go largely unmentioned by the Pentagon and unnoticed by the American public.
From the start of the war in March 2003 through Dec. 31 — the latest figures available — 1,123 civilian contractors are known to have died in Iraq, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Pentagon records show that 3,954 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Last year, 901 U.S. military personnel were killed in Iraq, the most for any year of the war and up about 10 percent from 822 in 2006, according to the authoritative Web site, which tallies the statistics.
It is not clear whether 2007 likewise represented the deadliest year for civilian contractors. The Labor Department did not provide a breakdown of the data for all the years of the war.
Death toll draws criticism
The mounting death toll among civilian contractors — while a fraction of the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians caught in the violence — is sparking new criticism of the war.
"Civilians are being put on the front line and in the middle of battle," said T. Scott Allen, a Houston attorney representing former KBR workers injured in Iraq and survivors of workers killed.
He called the spike in contractor fatalities "offensive."
KBR has more than 54,000 workers in Iraq serving up food, washing clothes, delivering mail and providing a host of other logistical support services for the Pentagon.
The Bush administration recently has expanded the number of contractors working in Iraq, while at the same time preparing to reduce the number of troops there.
Neither the Pentagon nor the Labor Department would comment on why civilian contractor deaths rose so much in 2007 — indeed, at a faster rate than military fatalities.
The death count was higher early in 2007, with fatalities in the first half of the year double the number in the second half.
Troops deaths also decreased later in the year.
As more U.S. troops flooded into Iraq as part of the surge, military deaths hit a high of 126 in May — the worst month since late 2004, figures show.
But by December, they had dropped to 23.
And in the last two months, violence against contractors has ebbed considerably, said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group for military contracting firms.
Attacks on convoys decline
Less than 3 percent of convoys rolling through Iraq are coming under attack, Brooks said, down from about 20 percent a year ago.
Available statistics don't show how many of the civilian contractors killed last year were Americans. The Labor Department does not provide a breakdown by nationality.
But industry experts believe most of the victims are Iraqis and other foreign nationals, since they make up most of the contract work force.
About 155,000 contractors were working in Iraq for the Defense Department in the fourth quarter, Brooks said. That's on par with the number of U.S. troops — 158,000, according to the Pentagon.
The number of contractors working in Iraq has been on the rise, up 13 percent from the third quarter of 2007.
Only about 27,000 of the 155,000 contractors working in Iraq are Americans, Brooks said. Most of the U.S. citizens work for KBR.
Ninety-seven KBR workers have been killed in Iraq, including 14 last year, company officials said.
That was down from a high of 38 in 2004, the year six KBR truck drivers were killed and another 14 injured when their convoy was abushed in a scene that has come to be known as the Good Friday Massacre.
"The safety and training programs that KBR has had in place since starting work in Iraq remain unchanged," KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne said. "Further, the company's commitment to the safety and security of all employees is unwavering."
One civilian's story
Among KBR's casualties last year was logistics coordinator Carolyn Edwards, 38, of Montezuma, Ga. Edwards was walking in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad last March when she was struck by rocket debris, company officials said.
"She told me she was in the safe area," said Queen Minter, Edwards' aunt. Edwards had admitted she was afraid to go to Iraq but had taken the job anyway.
"We didn't want her to go," Minter said.
The Labor Department's figures only provide a rough estimate of the number of civilian contractors killed in Iraq.
They actually record the number of insurance claims filed with the Labor Department's Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation. Workers whose families or employers do not seek compensation are not counted.
"How can it be that the only official count of dead and wounded contractors in Iraq comes from the Labor Department rather than the Defense Department?" law professor Schooner wonders.
But after nearly five years of war, some clarity may be coming.
Blackwater, the largest private security firm in Iraq, has been under scrutiny as a federal grand jury in Washington investigates the company's involvement in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians Sept. 16.
Prompted largely by the outcry over that incident, lawmakers inserted language into a Defense Department authorization bill that will require the administration to keep track of how many contractors are killed or wounded in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Law signed last month
That legislation, which Bush signed into law late last month, requires the Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to maintain a database recording how many contractors are working in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the number killed and wounded in those two conflicts.
Lawmakers would then have access to that database.
"This new law will finally provide us with answers to basic questions about the role, size and scope of private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who spearheaded the effort to include the language.
"It will also provide much-needed oversight and transparency to an industry that has gone virtually unchecked for years."