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.
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
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.