By Richard Lardner, Associated Press
Washington - The United States has assembled an imposing industrial army in Iraq that's larger than its uniformed fighting force and is responsible for such a broad swath of responsibilities that the military might not be able to operate without its private-sector partners.
More than 180,000 Americans, Iraqis and nationals from other countries work under federal contracts to provide security, gather intelligence, build roads, improve infrastructure, forge a financial system and transport needed supplies in a country the size of California.
That figure contrasts with the 163,100 U.S. military personnel, according to U.S. Central Command, responsible for military operations in the Middle East.
The Pentagon puts the military figure at 169,000. An additional 12,400 coalition forces are stationed in Iraq.
The heavy reliance on contractors in a war zone is in the spotlight after employees for Blackwater USA, a security company, were involved in a weekend shooting that left at least 11 Iraqis dead.
The situation is partly the result of a post-Cold War shrinking of the armed forces and the Bush administration's preference for contracting out government functions to the corporate world.
While having contractors on and around the battlefield is not new, the situation in Iraq raises questions about whether U.S. troops have become so dependent on contract help that they could not function properly without it.
"If the contractors turn tail and run, we've still got to be able to fight," said Steve Schooner, co-director of the government procurement law program at The George Washington University and a former military lawyer.
The presence of thousands of private-sector security guards adds another component to the debate. Employees for Blackwater and other companies are engaging the enemy in combat, a sharp departure from previous conflicts.
"It's pretty clear that line has been crossed in Iraq," Schooner said. "And it's been crossed because we don't have enough horses left, and we have all kinds of problems in terms of coordination."
According to Central Command, 137,000 contractors are working in Iraq under Defense Department contracts. Under separate contracts, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development employ thousands more.
Associated Press reporters Pauline Jelinek and Matthew Lee contributed to this report. Details on legislation were provided by McClatchy Newspapers.