ORLANDO, Fla. - As the insurgency and violence in Iraq intensify, the Department of Defense has proposed a new rule for most of the estimated 70,000 civilian contractors working in the war-torn region: They can't carry guns.
At the same time, a top Defense Department official this week acknowledged publicly for the first time that the war effort was suffering a "brain drain" of civilian workers who were fleeing Iraq because they didn't feel safe.
Truck convoys in Iraq are "more like a journey through the wild, wild west," Gen. Darryl A. Scott, the director of the Defense Contract Management Agency, told a conference of government and corporate contracting officials in Orlando, Fla.
"That's a reality there. People leave every day. ... It does make operating in that environment more difficult."
It's unclear how many civilian contractors have fled Iraq and how many have been killed there because firms aren't required to report their casualties or any defections. Halliburton Inc., however, said 34 of its employees were killed in the region. Five other private security guard deaths have been publicly disclosed.
On March 23, the Defense Department proposed a rule saying that civilian contractors who accompany the military in battle areas can't carry private firearms unless they received permission by an order from the chief of U.S. forces in the area. That restriction has prompted heated discussions at the 45th annual National Contract Management Association convention.
Deidre Lee, the Pentagon's director of procurement and acquisition policy, whose office proposed the weapons restriction, said it's designed to settle one of the biggest questions facing contractors: "to arm or not to arm."
Lee said this is a life-or-death issue because "we don't have the military providing security for our contractors."
Lee told Knight Ridder Newspapers that the proposed rule could change depending on contractor reaction. The official comment period ends in late May, but there's no timetable for a final regulation. In the meantime, some contractors are carrying guns.
Many private workers in the region are ex-military personnel and prefer to be armed, said Cathy Etheredge, a contract manager for BAE Systems, which provides information technology in Afghanistan.
The problem with the rule is that it tells contractors that they're responsible for their security, but then says they can't be armed, said Nick Sanders, who chairs the contract finance committee for the National Defense Industrial Association, a trade group for traditional defense contractors.
"It doesn't appear to be a well-thought-out, coherent policy," Sanders said. "It appears to be a one-way door where contractors will have all the responsibility and cost."
Supporters of the new rule - including the biggest contractor in the area, Halliburton's Kellogg Brown and Root - said there are three big drawbacks in allowing contractors to carry weapons. Armed contractors would be more likely to be shot at or kidnapped. Also, as civilians, they don't follow the same strict rules of force as the military. And by picking up weapons, contractors could lose any death and accident insurance coverage they may have.
Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a trade organization that represents many top service-oriented contractors, said the proposed rule is "giving structure to what had been a somewhat gray area."
Dennis Wright, a KBR vice president, said contract employees should be unarmed, but he strongly recommends using armed private security. He said KBR's contract with the Defense Department says the military would provide "adequate security" to the company, but then added that "the question that comes up is, `What is adequate security?' especially with the latest strain on forces."
The weapons proposal comes as conditions in Iraq deteriorate.
For much of 2003, Wright said, his employees were welcomed by Iraqis. But no longer.
"The government didn't get contractors in the middle of a war zone," Wright said. "It happened that the war zone popped up around us."
Soloway said there are still few problems with the reconstruction.
"There have actually been very few people who have actually asked to come home. There are some here and there," Soloway said Wednesday.
In the past week, however, four contract workers have told Knight Ridder that they quit because of worries about security.
"You keep putting a man's life at risk every day," said one former worker who left last month and asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from his former employer. "It becomes a thing where you literally ask yourself every day: Is today my day?"
© 2004 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources.