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Death and Danger Mount for Contractors in Iraq

More than 200 civilians working for U.S. government contractors have died in Iraq since the spring of 2003. Some wonder how many companies will continue sending workers there.

January 31, 2005
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Five days before Christmas, Leslie Davis, a Halliburton Co. employee, spoke to his wife about how bad he felt for the young soldiers at the U.S. military base in Mosul, Iraq, where he was working.

    "He said he was going to go out on Christmas and take pictures of all the soldiers and have Christmas fun with those without families," Dona Davis told the Houston Chronicle.

    Leslie Davis, 53, didn’t live to see Christmas. On Dec. 21, 2004, he and three other Halliburton employees were among 22 people killed in a suicide bomb attack on the base’s mess hall.

    Now amid the continuing security problems in Iraq, some are wondering how many government contractors will continue doing business in Iraq.

    If things don’t improve after the Jan. 30 election, "we may be getting to the point where it’s just too dangerous," warns Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a research institute in Washington, D.C.

    The U.S. government does not provide statistics on contractor casualties. According to Labor Department data obtained by Bloomberg News, more than 200 civilians working on U.S. government contracts or subcontracts have died in Iraq since spring 2003. Those numbers reflect federally guaranteed workers’ compensation insurance claims filed by companies under the Defense Base Act.

    One Web site that monitors casualties in Iraq, including the deaths of contractor employees, also puts the number of deaths at more than 200, with more than a third of them Americans. "Casualty figures are far higher than most people realized among contractors," says Peter Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.

    There are still tens of thousands of Americans working for contractors on the reconstruction effort in Iraq. But in December, Contrack International became the first major U.S. contractor to pull out, citing skyrocketing security costs. The Arlington, Virginia, company led a consortium that won a $325 million contract to rebuild Iraq’s transportation system.

    In some areas of Iraq involved in the project, conditions were so dangerous that Contrack "just couldn’t do the work," says Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents private contractors in Iraq. Another member of the Contrack consortium, Egypt-based Orascom Telecom, has said it is considering whether to withdraw.

    At the time the first contracts were awarded, security costs were expected to run no higher than 10 percent to 15 percent of the value of the contract. Sheba Crocker, an expert on Iraq at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says those costs are "now an order of magnitude much greater than that," with the latest estimates as high as 50 percent.

    Crocker indicated some surprise that more companies haven’t left. "That suggests something is making it worth their while to stay there," she says.

    Fluor Corp., an engineering and construction company based in Irvine, California, still has 300 employees in Iraq, and its database of job applicants has doubled since last spring to 2,400. "The security situation has obviously deteriorated," says Pat Wuhrman, Fluor’s director of human resources for Iraq operations. But at the same time, the company, which has yet to suffer any casualties, has increased security and improved living conditions.

    "We’ve moved out of hooches into villas and purpose-built housing," Wuhrman says. Employees are ferried to work sites in Black Hawk helicopters, avoiding the danger of roadside bombs.

    Soloway hasn’t seen "a wholesale departure of people who are there, or the pipeline shutting down of people willing to go there." But he also notes that "some companies face similar situations to Contrack. And they could be forced to make the same decisions."

    Other headaches may be looming. In January, relatives of four American men massacred in Fallujah, a hotspot of Iraqi resistance, sued a North Carolina security firm for wrongful death. The men were all independent contractors and had agreed "to assume any and all risks of personal injury including death." According to the suit, however, Blackwater Security Consulting fraudulently induced them to sign those agreements by making false promises that they would be provided with, among other things, machine guns and armored vehicles.

    "They went there with promises that they’d have certain protections," says Daniel Callahan, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "Those promises were not fulfilled."

    In a statement, Blackwater said it is "deeply saddened by the tragic loss of our four colleagues as a result of a terrorist act." Spokesman Chris Bertelli added: "Blackwater hopes that the honor and dignity of our fallen comrades are not diminished by the use of the legal process."

    The Blackwater suit could be just the beginning of litigation related to contractor deaths, according to Korb. "I suspect that as other people assess the (legal) situation, you’re going to see more of this," he says.

    Whether a contractor chooses to stay or go, experts believe, may well depend on the outcome of the Jan. 30 election. "If the security situation continues to deteriorate, it will be very difficult to get people to go to Iraq and more difficult to get any work done," Soloway says.

    Wuhrman is looking beyond the election to issues of sovereignty. "If the (elected) Iraqi government says it’s responsible for contractor security, then we’d have to assess ... whether that would be acceptable to us," he says. The performance of Iraqi security forces so far, he says, has not been reassuring.

DEATHS ON THE JOB IN IRAQ

At least 181 U.S. contractor employees died in Iraq last year, compared with 23 deaths in 2003, according to Department of Labor data reported by Bloomberg News. The numbers are derived from insurance claims filed for employee deaths on foreign soil. The list below is a compilation of contractor employee deaths based on publicly available sources, and may not be definitive. Many companies have refused to comment on how many of their employees have died in Iraq.
Name of Company Nature of contract Size of contract Employees in Iraq Employees deaths in Iraq
Titan Corp. Linguist services $402 million 4,400 86
KBR (engineering and fires; procuring, constructing arm importing and of Halliburton) Extinguishing oil fires; procuring, importing and delivering fuels
to Iraq
$11.4 billion 24,000 69
DynCorp (a subsidiary of
Computer Sciences Corp.)
Organizes civilian law enforcement $50 million 1,000 14
Blackwater Security Consulting LLC Security services $2.3 million 240 9
Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Inc. Disposal of unexploded ordnance and munitions million $71.9 million 100+ 5
Sources: Size of contracts and number of employees are from the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. Number of deaths obtained from the Department of Labor/Bloomberg, The Washington Post and the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count Web site (www.icasualties.org)

Workforce Management, January 2005, p. 15-16 -- Subscribe Now!

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