Wednesday, October 11, 2006

In Iraq, contractor deaths near 650, legal fog thickens

In Iraq, contractor deaths near 650, legal fog thickens
By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON - The war in Iraq has killed at least 647 civilian contractors to date, according to official figures that provide a stark reminder of the huge role of civilians in supporting the U.S. military.

The contractor death toll is tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor on the basis of claims under an insurance policy, the Defense Base Act, that all U.S. government contractors and subcontractors working outside the United States must take out for their civilian employees.

In response to questions from Reuters, a Labor Department spokesman said there had been 647 claims for death benefits between March 1, 2003, and September 30, 2006. The Defense Base Act covers both Americans and foreigners, and there is no breakdown of the nationalities of those killed. The Pentagon does not monitor civilian contractor casualties.

The death toll of civilians working alongside U.S. forces in Iraq compares with more than 2,700 military dead and, experts say, underscores the risks of outsourcing war to private military contractors.

Their number in Iraq is estimated at up to 100,000, from highly-trained former special forces soldiers to drivers, cooks, mechanics, plumbers, translators, electricians and laundry workers and other support personnel.

A trend toward "privatizing war" has been accelerating steadily since the end of the Cold War, when the United States and its former adversaries began cutting back professional armies. U.S. armed forces shrank from 2.1 million when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 to 1.4 million today.

"At its present size, the U.S. military could not function without civilian contractors," said Jeffrey Addicott, an expert at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. "The problem is that the civilians operate in a legal gray zone. There has been little effort at regulation, oversight, standardized training and a uniform code of conduct. It's the Wild West out there."


Two court cases slowly making their way through the U.S. legal system have opened a window on the legal fog hanging over civilians who work alongside the military and have become an everyday presence in conflict zones.

The legal cases involve Blackwater Security and Halliburton which field hundreds of civilians in Iraq. The two companies are part of a global industry estimated to bring in up to $100 billion annually.

The suit against Blackwater, the first of its kind in the United States, was brought 19 months ago by the families of four civilian contractors who were shot in March 2004 by insurgents who burned their bodies and hung the charred remains of two from the girders of a bridge in the city of Falluja.

Television images of the gruesome scene, with jubilant Iraqis shaking their fists, were beamed around the world and shocked the United States. Some military experts view the Falluja incident, which prompted a massive U.S. retaliatory assault on Falluja, as a turning point in the war.

The suit, for fraud and wrongful death, alleges that Blackwater broke explicit terms of its contract with the men -- Stephen (Scott) Helveston, Mike Teague, Jerko Zovko and Wesley Batalona -- by sending them to escort a food convoy in unarmored cars, without heavy machine guns and in teams that lacked even a map.

The suit against Halliburton stems from the April 2004 ambush of a convoy of fuel trucks near Abu Ghraib in which six drivers working for a company subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root were killed and 11 injured. In September, a federal judge in Houston threw out the suit, saying his court had no jurisdiction because the decision to send the convoy had been "interwoven with Army decisions."

"The effect of this ruling is ... a legal gray zone in which Halliburton and KBR can act in any manner they chose," said T. Scott Allen, attorney for the families. "We will appeal."

A few days after the Houston decision, a U.S. appeals court in Raleigh, North Carolina, rejected a Blackwater petition for a rehearing of an appeal to have the case moved from a state court in Moycock where the company is based, and have it adjudicated by the Department of Labor, which decides Defense Base Act claims in the first place.

"The decision was clear: jurisdiction of this case rests with the state court," said Dan Callahan, one of the attorneys for the families of the four killed in Falluja. "This paves the way for holding Blackwater liable and establish guidelines and accountability for contracting firms operating abroad."

Where the case comes to be heard has enormous monetary implications: There is no cap on punitive damages in a state court and past judgments have reached staggering heights. Callahan, for example, won a $934 million jury verdict in a 2003 corporate litigation in California.

The Base Defense Act provides for maximum death benefits of $4,123.12 a month.