May 19, 2007 – WASHINGTON: Casualties among private contractors in Iraq have soared to record levels this year, setting a pace that seems certain to turn 2007 into the bloodiest year yet for the civilians who work alongside the U.S. military in the war zone, according to new government numbers.
At least 146 contract workers were killed in Iraq in the first three months of the year, by far the highest number for any quarter since the war began in March 2003, according to the Labor Department, which processes death and injury claims for those working as U.S. government contractors in Iraq.
That brings the total number of contractors killed in Iraq to at least 917, along with more than 12,000 wounded in battle or injured on the job, according to government figures and dozens of interviews. Truck drivers and translators account for a significant share of the casualties, but the recent death toll includes others who make up what amounts to a private army.
The numbers, which have not been previously reported, reveal the extent to which contractors – Americans, Iraqis, and workers from more than three dozen other countries – are largely hidden casualties of the war, and now are facing increased risks alongside U.S. troops as President George W. Bush’s escalation in Baghdad takes hold.
As troops patrol more aggressively in and around the capital, both soldiers and the contractors who support them, often at small outposts, are at greater peril. The contractor deaths earlier this year, for example, came closer to the number of U.S. military deaths during the same period – 244 – than during any other quarter since the war began, according to official figures.
“The insurgents are going after the softest targets, and the contractors are softer targets than the military,” said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense for manpower during the Reagan administration. “The U.S. is being more aggressive over there, and these contractor deaths go right along with it.”
Among the recent deaths were four Americans working as guards who died in a helicopter crash in January, 28 Turkish construction workers whose plane crashed north of Baghdad the same month, a Massachusetts man who was blown up as he dismantled munitions for an U.S. company in March, and a Georgia woman killed in a missile attack in March while working as a coordinator for KBR, the contractor that Halliburton subsequently spun off.
Donald Tolfree Jr., a trucker from Michigan, was fatally shot in the cab of his vehicle while returning to Camp Anaconda, north of Baghdad, in early February. His daughter, Kristen Martin, 23, said U.S. Army officials told her he was shot by a guard confused about her father’s assignment. The army confirms the death as under investigation as a possible friendly-fire episode.
Martin said she waited three weeks for her father’s body to be returned home and expressed resentment that dead contractors were treated differently from soldiers who fall in battle.
“If anything happens to the military people, you hear about it right away,” she said in a telephone interview. “Flags get lowered, they get their respect. You don’t hear anything about the contractors.”
Military officials in Washington and Baghdad said that no Pentagon office tracked contractor casualties and that they had no way to confirm or explain the sharp rise in deaths this year.
Major General William Caldwell 4th, the top spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, declined through an aide to address the matter. “Contractors are out of our lane, and we don’t comment on them,” said the aide, Lieutenant Matthew Breedlove.
Companies that have lost workers in Iraq were generally unresponsive to questions about the numbers of deaths and the circumstances that led to casualties. None acknowledged that they had seen an increase this year. But a spokesman for American International Group, the insurance company that covers about 80 percent of the contractor workforce in Iraq, said it had seen a sharp increase in death and injury claims in recent months.
The Labor Department records show that in addition to the 146 dead in the first three months this year, another 3,430 contractors filed claims for wounds or injuries suffered in Iraq, also a quarterly record. The number of casualties, though, may be much higher because the government’s statistical database is not complete.