Iraq Contractors Brave Ongoing Risks

In the wake of an Australian engineer's kidnapping in Iraq, Robert Siegel talks with T. Christian Miller of the Los Angeles Times about the thousands of contractors doing business there. Miller says despite ongoing risks, companies have had no trouble finding willing employees.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The kidnapping of an Australian engineer in Iraq reminds us that in addition to the troops serving there, there are thousands of civilian contractors, and there are dangers to doing such work. T. Christian Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times and covers the reconstruction of Iraq. He joins us in the studio in Washington.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. T. CHRISTIAN MILLER (Los Angeles Times): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: How many Americans are working as civilian contractors in Iraq? Do we know?

Mr. MILLER: Well, nobody is quite certain because no one keeps track of that number. The best estimates are anywhere from 15,000 to about 30,000 Americans are working there. In addition, there's about 70,000 contractors, Iraqis and other nationalities, who work for American companies.

SIEGEL: What do most of them do?

Mr. MILLER: The single-largest employer is, of course, Halliburton, or KBR. That company provides the US military with all its logistical services, everything from mail delivery to cleaning the bathrooms. The other contractors do a lot of work in the reconstruction, which is building roads, bridges, establishing communications, things like that.

SIEGEL: Presumably there are a lot of people who are also contracted with to provide security for the people who are doing the other jobs.

Mr. MILLER: Yes, that's been the biggest issue in the reconstruction. And one of the biggest problems is: How do you provide security for all these Americans and other nationalities over there? By any estimate, there's 30,000 or so security contractors, 6,000 of whom are expats.

SIEGEL: Americans.

Mr. MILLER: Americans and British and Australians, mostly former Special Forces people.

SIEGEL: And if you're going to do business in Iraq, you'd better hire some of these people to protect your people doing business there.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. The current ratio now is there's about anywhere from 10 to 14 security guards for each individual American going out to a site; costs about $5,000 a day.

SIEGEL: $5,000 a day?

Mr. MILLER: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: A year ago we were hearing a lot more about the dangers to American contractors in Iraq. Has it become clear to the people who kidnap or fire at foreign civilian contractors that the Americans aren't about to leave, so there's no point in attacking them anymore, or are they still the subject of attacks all the time?

Mr. MILLER: Oh, no, I don't think that's become clear at all. In fact, I think there's some evidence that's been sort of effective. There have been contractors who have pulled out because of the dangers, and I don't think you're going to see any decrease in the attacks against the contractors. The best numbers we have so far is that about 300 or so contractors have been killed--that's mostly Americans--and another 2,400, 2,500 injured.

SIEGEL: You wrote a story about a California company, Parsons; that's a contractor for Iraqi reconstruction. It makes sense for them to be doing this? This is a good business deal for them in Iraq?

Mr. MILLER: Parsons says that it's a good business deal for them. One of their goals right now is to expand their work overseas in federal contracting, and certainly that's part of this plan. I think if you talk to average, everyday Parsons employee, there's a level of ambivalence about what they do in terms of--on business sense. But there certainly is a lot of--many Parsons employees are convinced that what they're doing is important.

SIEGEL: You described--as one senior described, Parsons doing some construction work in Iraq, which was fascinating. The company had a choice to either use heavy machinery to move earth or hire a lot of people to use shovels, and the company's instinct was to use the heavy machinery--be most efficient. They were under some pressure, I guess, from the US military to use civilians.

Mr. MILLER: Exactly. One of the problems in the reconstruction has been: `What exactly do we want to do with it? Do we want to give Iraqis jobs and just make work jobs, or do we want to try and use taxpayers' money here in the US in the best possible way?' Parsons was operating under the presumption that we should be efficient and use those bulldozers. The US military was operating under the assumption that, `We want to give Iraqis jobs, and so even if it costs more, let's give a bunch of Iraqis jobs.'

SIEGEL: And who won out in that case?

Mr. MILLER: In that case, the US military did, as it usually does.

SIEGEL: Are the contractors able to hire? Can they fill all the--I was looking at the KBR Web site today, the Halliburton subsidiary, and they appear to have, at least as of the last time they freshened the Web site, I think it's 580-something openings for everything from this kind of technician to bus driver to truck driver to plumber. Are they having trouble filling those jobs?

Mr. MILLER: No. Nobody I've ever spoken with has had any trouble filling jobs in Iraq. They can find the people. It's not always easy, but there's always applicants who are willing to take up these jobs because they pay quite well. A truck driver can quadruple his salary very easy, just simply by going over to Iraq.

SIEGEL: Why are Americans driving trucks through Iraq when truck driving isn't--it's not a skill unique to Americans? One could reasonably hire some Iraqi truck drivers.

Mr. MILLER: Sure. That's a requirement of the US military and it also goes to just how deep and widespread the insurgency is in Iraq. We hire Americans to drive those trucks because we don't trust the Iraqis to do it. We don't know if we're going to be hiring insurgents, who would drive a truck onto a military base and then blow it up.

SIEGEL: T. Christian Miller, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. MILLER: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: T. Christian Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times and covers the reconstruction of Iraq.

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