By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON, Aug 19 (Reuters) - With the United States drawing down troops in Iraq, the State Department plans to double the number of private security contractors it uses to ensure the safety of the huge civilian development effort, officials said on Thursday.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the plan would bring to some 7,000 the total security contractors employed by the government in Iraq, where since the 2003 U.S. invasion private security firms have often been accused of acting above the law.
Crowley said the U.S. military’s plan to cut troop numbers to 50,000 by the end of August -- down from 176,000 at the peak of the deployment -- left a security gap contractors would have to fill.
"We will still have our own security needs to make sure that our diplomats and development experts are well protected," Crowley told a news briefing.
"We have very specific plans to increase our security ... as the military is leaving. This will be expensive. this is not a cheap proposition," he said, although he added the costs to the U.S. taxpayer would still be far less than those incurred by the military deployment.
The employment of contractors has caused anger in Iraq, particularly after a U.S. court dismissed charges against Blackwater Worldwide guards accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
Contractors’ immunity from prosecution was lifted last year under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact that gave Iraq back its sovereignty.
Security contractors have also spurred outrage in Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai issued a decree this week ordering private security firms to disband within four months as part of his ambitious plan for the government to take responsibility for all security in the country from 2014.
A senior U.S. official conceded contractors had caused problems in Iraq in the past, but said the administration was confident these could be avoided for what he described as a "short duration security requirement."
"We’ve had tragic issues involving contractors in the past. We have worked this issue very closely with the Iraqi government. There have been changes over the past couple of years to improve oversight and accountability for contractors in Iraq," the official said.
"We believe we can have the kind of accountability and oversight that is necessary," he said.
The United States is turning over much of future development work in Iraq to the State Department, which has asked for between $2-3 billion annually to help fund everything from new consulates to training Iraqi police.
The rise in contractor numbers in Iraq comes despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s own hopes to reduce U.S. government dependence on outside companies for a big chunk of its overseas security and development work.
Crowley said the decision to employ more contractors was seen as the most practical in Iraq, giving the government flexibility to increase security for now and then pull back if, as officials hope, the overall security situation improves. (Editing by Jerry Norton)