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Unfortunately, private security forces are necessary evil in Iraq

WASHINGTON — It is difficult to believe that trying to return a two-bit country like Iraq to some sort of normalcy would so deplete this nation's military and civilian security capabilities that it would have to rely on private gunslingers in a war zone. How can that be, and how in the world did we get in this situation?

Everyone thinks he has a simple answer to those two questions when, in fact, the current dilemma was brought on by a complex series of colossal missteps based on erroneous suppositions and exacerbated by stubborn, politically motivated amateurs who refused to see the early warning signs or listen to those trying to point them out. The generals who appeared before Congress recently brought the bad news that the military's current force size and readiness is stretched as thin as it has been almost since the Korean War when reserve and National Guard troops had to carry the brunt of the early fighting.

But that really comes as no surprise having been the object of considerable debate almost since the beginning of the Iraq invasion, when old line generals including then Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki openly worried about it and stated bluntly to their own detriment that calming Iraq after the invasion would take a standing force of from 250,000 to 300,000 troops. So long, Shinseki.

What most Americans didn't realize, however, was how much the relatively small military occupation numbers would force the vast array of civilian contractors and government agencies to depend on outside hired guns to protect their employees and their interests in that dangerous land. For instance while the State Department has its own elite, highly trained Diplomatic Security Service, the number of agents available for assignment in Iraq is far below what is needed. It would be much less expensive to hire a private security firm than to permanently increase the size of its own force. Some day things may settle down in Iraq, after all.

So Blackwater USA and other contractors like it have been carrying the civilian security load at increasingly greater expense, both financially and politically. Blackwater has been paid $1 billion so far. In the latest of a series of questionable actions, the mercenaries from Blackwater managed to kill a passel of Iraqi civilians in a pretty fierce gun battle that has not only been embarrassing to the White House and the State Department but also raised the ire of the Iraqi government, which has demanded they be banned. There have been so many conflicting accounts about who fired first or who didn't fire at all that what actually occurred may never be unraveled, especially since the FBI has been called in.

"The State Department has been using outside contractors for various jobs forever," a former Diplomatic Security officer told me recently. "There is nothing wrong with it in most cases. The one thing that should be avoided is using them when guns are involved. But there was no choice."

Whatever the outcome of two investigations into Blackwater's actions, the use of these contractors isn't likely to abate soon. They have been accused in the past of being too quick on the trigger, and that seems to be borne out by new reports of earlier incidents involving Blackwater employees and civilian deaths. Their continued presence is just another problem for George W. Bush's White House and whoever inherits it a year from now. But necessity may keep Blackwater's men and those of other contractors involved for some time.

The United States is building one of the largest embassy complexes in the world in Baghdad, acres of buildings all fortified for the future. Unless Diplomatic Security beefs up and already overtaxed Marines agree to do the same with their embassy contingents, there is going to be a long-term need for private security forces. Also, the work of American contractors to rebuild the infrastructure from the oil fields to the water and sewage and electric plants will continue to rely on these guards.

This is just another dilemma in the continuing saga of Iraq and the efforts to draw down troops and extricate the nation militarily from the swamp. How long will that take? It is interesting to note that the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination who are among the loudest in disagreement with Iraq policy refuse to say that there will be an instantaneous withdrawal or to even predict a timetable for it.

Maybe we should just pull out all the troops and leave it to Blackwater et al. It might be far less expensive.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.