WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The death toll for private contractors in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has topped 1,000, a stark reminder of the risks run by civilians working with the military in roles previously held by soldiers.
A further 13,000 contractors have been wounded in the two separate wars led by the United States against enemies who share fundamentalist Islamic beliefs and the hit-and-run tactics that drain conventional armies.
The casualty toll is based on figures the U.S. Department of Labor provided to Reuters in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act and on locally gathered data.
The department said it had recorded 990 deaths - 917 in Iraq and 73 in Afghanistan - by the end of March. Since then, according to incident logs tallied by Reuters in Baghdad and Kabul, at least 16 contractors have died in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
Those killed in Iraq between March 31 and today included four contractors from the Philippines killed in a rocket strike on Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone compound, a frequent target of attacks.
The Labor Department’s statistics put the number of wounded in Iraq between March 1, 2003 and March 31, 2007 as 10,569. The corresponding figure for Afghanistan, from September 2001 to March 2007, is 2,428.
Deaths and injuries among the growing ranks of civilians working in war zones are tracked on the basis of claims under an insurance policy, the Defense Base Act, which all U.S. contracting companies and subcontractors must take out for the civilians they employ outside the United States.
In Iraq, their number is estimated to be close to 130,000 — not much less than the 157,000 U.S. troops presently deployed to the country. Their work ranges from driving fuel trucks, cooking meals and cleaning toilets to servicing advanced weapons systems and guarding senior U.S. officials.
The contractor death toll compares with 3,577 U.S. military deaths in Iraq and 342 in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. That means that on average, since the two conflicts began in 2001 and 2003 respectively, one civilian contractor is killed for every four members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Despite the risks, there is no shortage of those wanting to work in the war zones, lured by high pay and, in some cases, a sense of adventure.
“There are more applicants than there are jobs,” said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group for more than 30 private security companies.
“That’s been the case from the beginning and it is still true, even though pay has gone down because there is a lot of competition.”
Neither the Pentagon nor any other U.S. government agency keeps a precise tally on the number of private security companies active in war zones - a fact that is drawing increasing complaints from Congressional critics who say there is not enough oversight and little accountability.
By some estimates, the number of private security companies in Iraq and Afghanistan has swollen to almost 300, both U.S. and foreign corporations. One of the richest contracts awarded since the U.S. invaded Iraq went to Aegis, a British firm involved in intelligence-gathering.
Contrary to common perceptions, the majority of civilian contractors in the war zones are not Americans - and foreigners have done most of the dying as the U.S. accelerated outsourcing functions previously performed by soldiers.
The Labor Department declined to give details of the nationalities of the contractors it listed as killed or wounded, saying that doing so would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” under the U.S. Privacy Act.
But at a Congressional hearing in May, Joseph McDermott, the Assistant Inspector General for Iraq, quoted Labor Department statistics as saying that of 900-plus contractors killed by the end of April, 224 were U.S. citizens.
Officials say the majority of contractors are Iraqis and people from developing countries as far apart as Chile and Nepal, Colombia and India, Fiji and El Salvador. Filipinos make up one of the largest single groups.