About 14,000 of the 16,000 personnel in Iraq are contractors from the U.S. or other countries who take part in daily missions such as security for personnel and air transport of supplies and people in need of medical care. (AFP)
Volatile security conditions have forced the State Department to continue to employ a large number of contractors to protect personnel in Iraq after the shift from a military to civilian-led mission, several senior federal officials told a House committee Thursday.
“It is accurate our personnel have security concerns,” said Mara Rudman, U.S Agency for International Development assistant administrator for the bureau for the Middle East. Rudman spoke at a hearing before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s national security subcommittee. “The security environment in Iraq is improving but is still not a normal security environment.”
The last American troops left Iraq in December, but the U.S. maintains a large presence in the country.
There are 16,000 personnel in Iraq employed by the State Department and other agencies, said Patrick F. Kennedy, undersecretary for management in the State Department. About 14,000 are contractors from the U.S. or other countries who take part in daily missions such as security for personnel and air transport of supplies and people in need of medical care.
About 6,500 of those 14,000 contractors are responsible for the security of American personnel in Iraq, Kennedy said. The high number is needed because of the still-volatile security situation in Iraq.
American personnel face various dangers in Iraq including “routine rocket and mortar attacks, car and roadside bombs, small arms fire and kidnapping,” wrote Michael Courts, acting director of International Affairs and Trade in his statement before the subcommittee.
Sectarian violence between Iraqis is also concern; June has been a particularly deadly month, said Stewart W. Bowen Jr., special inspector general for Iraq Reconstruction. Numerous bombings have been reported throughout Iraq this month.
“Until Sunni and Shia achieve improved acceptance of one another in Iraq … the United States will have to invest heavily in protecting its personnel in country,” Bowen wrote in his statement before the subcommittee.
By assessing these challenges and others, officials hope to gain knowledge to apply to the mission in Afghanistan, where transferring power to Afghan security forces is set to be completed by 2014.
The high number of security contractors “is directly related to the security conditions, which are improving, but they are certainly not at a point that we cannot rely on our own inherent security personnel,” Kennedy said.
While conditions have improved near the Baghdad embassy, any movement of personnel still calls for 48 hours’ notice and the accompaniment of three security vehicles, Bowen said. “It is a restricted environment from a security perspective,” he said.
Conditions outside of Baghdad remain unstable, Bowen said. “It is still quite dangerous up in Kirkuk. While there haven’t been very many duck-and-covers, as we say, in the [Baghdad] embassy this year, that is not the case up at the Kirkuk facility. Basra similarly is in a much more difficult security situation than those who operate in Baghdad,” he said.
The State Department is making plans to gradually reduce the number of personnel in Iraq over the next few years.
“As part of this effort, we are identifying possible reductions, such as transitioning from U.S. or third-country contractors to local Iraqi staff, and sourcing more goods and services locally, to reduce our overall reliance on contractor support,” Kennedy wrote in his statement before the subcommittee.
Alanna Durkin reports for Medill News Service.