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For months or years to come we'll be tracking the Americans who remain in Iraq. The last U.S. combat troops departed this month. But American diplomats are still there.
INSKEEP: And those diplomats are guarded by their own private army of security contractors with assault weapons and helicopters.
Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: As many as 5,000 American security forces will protect the American diplomats as they travel through an Iraq that remains dangerous.
Embassy personnel will ride in armored vehicles with armed guards, who work for companies with names like Triple Canopy and Global Strategies Group.
Their convoys will be watched from above. Another company, DynCorp International, will fly helicopters equipped with heavy machine guns.
PATRICK KENNEDY: Yes, we will have security contractors in Iraq.
BOWMAN: That's Patrick Kennedy, the State Department official overseeing the security force.
KENNEDY: But if you go back a year, the Department of Defense had around 17,000 security contractors in Iraq in addition to 150,000 or so armed service men and women.
BOWMAN: And Kennedy says those State Department security guards will be nothing like the Army and Marine Corps.
KENNEDY: We run. We go. We do not stand and fight. We will execute a high-speed J-turn and we will get as far away from the attackers as we possibly can.
DOV ZAKHEIM: Well, it's all very nice to say that.
BOWMAN: That's Dov Zakheim. He's a former top Pentagon official.
ZAKHEIM: But if you're coming under fire and you happen to have a gun in your hand and you are, say, a former military person, are you really going to cut and run?
BOWMAN: Zakheim served on the Commission on Wartime Contracting. That commission questioned whether it's wise to hire a private army for Iraq and whether the State Department can oversee thousands of security guards.
ZAKHEIM: First of all, there are just going to be so many of them and so few people from the State Department to supervise them.
BOWMAN: Patrick Kennedy, the State Department official, insists there will be enough oversight. Each time a U.S. diplomatic convoy moves out in Iraq, he says, a federal government supervisor will go along. And that federal agent, says Kennedy, will have complete authority should a convoy come under attack.
KENNEDY: The order to fire is given by that U.S. government State Department security professional. And so the contractors just don't open fire.
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BRIAN WILLIAMS: The Iraqi government has ordered a company that provides security for the U.S. to stop work and leave the country after...
BOWMAN: But private security contractors did open fire back in 2007 while protecting a State Department convoy in Baghdad. Seventeen Iraqis were killed by guards working for a company called Blackwater. A U.S. investigation later found there was no threat to that convoy.
The State Department has a shaky record overseeing armed guards. A recent congressional study found that many contractor abuses in Iraq during the war were caused by those working for the State Department, not the military.
Again, Dov Zakheim, the former Pentagon official.
ZAKHEIM: This isn't what the State Department does for a living. It isn't part of their culture. They are being thrown in to something that they've never managed before to the extent they have to manage it. They've done this on a much smaller scale.
BOWMAN: The State Department has its own security force that protects diplomats - the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. But that force of 2,000 covers the entire world. So Zakheim says in the short term the State Department should reach out to the Pentagon to come up with more inspectors, more auditors, to help oversee the contractor security force in Iraq - a contractor force that may include the company once known as Blackwater. It just renamed itself Academi.
TED WRIGHT: Our role in Iraq today is we do not have a role.
BOWMAN: That's company president Ted Wright.
WRIGHT: What we'd like to do is follow through in all the changes we've made here with the company so that we can reapply and do business in Iraq in the future.
BOWMAN: Iraq has so far barred the company from doing business. It hasn't forgotten that those Blackwater security guards opened fire in Baghdad.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.