Did you know that the United States is currently paying for over 5,000 civilian contractors in Iraq? After the withdrawal of US troops in Dec. 2011, and the failure to negotiate a Status of Forces agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, it has fallen to civilians to fill in for the military. The number of contractors has fallen in the last year but still remains significant. And while most contractors are in non-combat roles, it is dangerous work.

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A recent Wall Street Journal piece notes the variety of jobs contractors are filling overseas, from aircraft maintenance to missile operations to janitorial services. Recent military equipment sales to Iraq by the United States have necessitated that manufacturers provide ongoing support in-country due to the lack of trained Iraqi personnel and logistics issues.

Some of the contractors are hired by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. About one third of the 5,000 contractors now in Iraq are US citizens. These are not hirees for military sales but those working in support of the diplomatic mission. The number of contractors was as high as 12,500 a year ago but has fallen. Recent opportunities include a contract to manage waste disposal for the embassy and another to operate concessions and MWR facilities at the consulate in Basra.

Military sales to Iraq are generating employment for those in the defense industry. About $6 billion is sales are expected to flow into Iraq over the next several months. Helicopter, aircraft and missile sales often require a cadre of support staff. The Iraqi government has sought to hire subject matter experts in military fields that their army had not mastered by the end of 2011, such as intelligence.

The current unrest in Anbar province and other Sunni areas is testing both the Iraqi government and its military. There are about 200 members of the US military in Iraq, assigned to the embassy. Had there been a negotiated SOFA, there might have been as many as ten thousand. That would have allowed U.S. advisers and trainers to work with both the Iraqi military and the tribes in Anbar, increasing their skills and perhaps even preventing the reappearance of al-Qaeda.

As it stands, contractors in Iraq are performing a vital, but also volatile, mission. As al-Qaeda gains ground, the Iraqi government is expected to outsource more of its military mission.

“The military task has, in fact, been outsourced in Iraq,” noted analyst Steven Schooner, a professor at George Washington University Law School. Schooner conducted research showing that in Afghanistan, more civilian contractors were being killed than U.S. soldiers.

Contracting jobs most in-demand today often center around equipment support. As the Iraqi government looks to procure Apache helicopters and UAVs, contractors with that experience will be in high-demand.

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Charles Simmins brings thirty years of accounting and management experience to his coverage of the news. An upstate New Yorker, he is a freelance journalist, former volunteer firefighter and EMT, and is owned by a wife and four cats.