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Some US Troops Out of Iraq, More Mercenaries to Go In

US to Rely on Contractors in Iraq

The US State Department is to more than double the number of security contractors it employs in Iraq to around 7000, filling a gap left by departing troops, the New York Times reported on Thursday.

Members of the last American combat brigade in Iraq crossed into Kuwait early on Thursday as the military neared its Aug. 31 deadline to end combat operations. (Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press) The newspaper said the contractors would be deployed to defend five fortified compounds that will be left behind as US combat forces exit Iraq and the US mission switches from a military-led to a civilian-headed operation.

Citing unnamed administration officials, the Times said private security contractors would operate radar to warn of enemy fire, search for roadside bombs, and fly surveillance drones.

They could also staff "quick reaction forces" dispatched to rescue civilians in trouble.

The massive increase in security contractors is an indication of the unusually large role that will be assumed by US diplomatic staff after combat troops leave Iraq.

The last US combat brigade left Iraq at dawn on Thursday, leaving behind some 56,000 US soldiers who will gradually be drawn down over the coming year.

The Times said more than 1200 specific tasks currently handled by US troops have been identified for handover to US civilians or Iraqis or to be phased out.

The State Department meanwhile, seeking to outfit its employees for the next phase of their mission, plans to purchase 60 mine-resistant vehicles from the Pentagon and to expand its inventory of armoured cars to 1,320.

It also plans to add three planes to the sole aircraft it has now, and expand its helicopter fleet - to be piloted by contractors - to 29 from 17.

The increased reliance on security contractors could cause conflict with Iraq's government, which is sensitive to the use of foreign security personnel because of their alleged involvement in incidents involving civilian deaths.

But the forces employed by the State Department will not have immunity from Iraqi prosecution, will be required to register with the country, and will be trailed by State Department regional security officers for extra oversight.

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