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Even though all American combat forces are scheduled to leave Iraq by year's end, there's still a big need for security. For American diplomats, that means U.S. troops will be replaced by a private army. Already, the State Department is approving contracts.

But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, there are questions about whether it makes sense to turn over this security job to private companies.

TOM BOWMAN: A U.S. Army helicopter brigade is set to pull out of Baghdad in December. That's part of an agreement with the Iraqi government to remove U.S. forces. So the armed helicopters flying over the Iraqi capital next year will have a pilot and a machine gunner from DynCorp International, a company based in Virginia.

On the ground, it's the same story. American soldiers and Marines will leave. Those replacing them, right down to carrying assault weapons, will come from places with names like AEGIS Defense Services and Global Strategies Group -eight companies in all.

Overseeing these armed personnel is Patrick Kennedy, a top State Department official.

Mr. PATRICK KENNEDY (State Department): I think the number of State Department security contractors would be somewhere in the area between 4,500 and 5,000.

BOWMAN: That's roughly the size of an Army brigade, and double the number of private security there now. The State Department has an in-house security force, but just 2,000 of them for the entire world. They handle everything from protecting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to guarding embassies and consulates.

Kennedy says for a tough job like Iraq, he needs help.

Mr. KENNEDY: In a situation like this, where you have a surge requirement that exceeds the capability of the State Department, it is normal practice to contract out for personnel to assist during those surge periods.

BOWMAN: But the State Department has a shaky record overseeing armed guards. A recent congressional study found that many contractor abuses in Iraq were caused by those working for the State Department, not for the Pentagon.

The most notorious was the shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007. Guards with the private security contractor Blackwater opened fire while protecting a State Department convoy. The U.S. investigation later found there was no threat to that convoy.

Among those contractors who'll be working in Iraq next year is International Development Services, a company with links to Blackwater, now renamed Xe Services.

State Department officials say they've made changes since that deadly incident in Baghdad. Now there are more State Department supervisors. Contractors must take an interpreter on all convoys. Companies can be penalized for poor performance.

That's not enough, says Grant Green, a member of the Wartime Contracting Commission created by Congress. He told a House panel recently that the State Department still isn't ready to assume responsibility for Iraq next year.

Mr. GRANT GREEN (Commissioner, Commission on Wartime Contracting): They do not have enough oversight today to oversee and manage those contractors in the way they should be.

Mr. KENNEDY: We simply dispute that contention.

BOWMAN: Again, Patrick Kennedy of the State Department. He says there are plenty of supervisors who shadow these private contractors.

Mr. KENNEDY: We have trained State Department security professionals in every convoy in very movement in Iraq.

BOWMAN: But that raises a broader question. Should the State Department be turning over these inherently military jobs to private contractors?

Pratap Chatterjee doesn't think so. He's with the Center for American Progress and writes about contractors. He says these are government roles that demand accountability to the public. He has another idea about what should be done.

Mr. PRATAP CHATTERJEE (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress): You might as well beef up the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

BOWMAN: That means greatly expanding that State Department security force of 2,000 that now covers the entire world.

Mr. CHATTERJEE: And make sure that you have the capability, you know, for future operations in countries like Libya, or wherever it is, rather than assuming that the private contractors will do a good job because you've written a good contract. That's just not good enough.

BOWMAN: But it may be impractical to hire thousands more State Department security personnel. Stuart Bowen is a special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. He says today's wars are different - lengthy, ambitious - so it doesn't make sense to build a large force to protect diplomats.

Mr. STUART BOWEN (Special Inspector General, Iraq Reconstruction): I don't expect that the United States is going be engaged in a stabilization operation of the size of either Iraq or Afghanistan in the near future.

BOWMAN: That may be true. But for the time being, private security contractors, thousands more, will soon be on the job in Iraq.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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