Security firms in Iraq look to up US political support

WASHINGTON: Increased violence this month has thrown a spotlight on the small army of private US security firms operating as paramilitaries in Iraq under Pentagon contracts. As calls for greater regulation over these companies increase, at least two are ramping up their presence in Washington to make their voices heard.

WASHINGTON: Increased violence this month has thrown a spotlight on the small army of private US security firms operating as paramilitaries in Iraq under Pentagon contracts. As calls for greater regulation over these companies increase, at least two are ramping up their presence in Washington to make their voices heard.

At the forefront is Blackwater USA, the North Carolina firm that lost four employees after an attack in Fallujah on March 31. The victims were burned in their car by an angry mob, after which their bodies were mutilated and hanged from a bridge.

Besieged by media calls, the firm turned to Alexander Strategy Group (ASG), a DC public affairs and lobbying shop, to help manage media requests. Blackwater also is using ASG to make sure its interests are represented in the growing debate over what role private firms should be allowed to play in military conflicts.

"Because of the public events of March 31, [Blackwater's] visibility and need to communicate a consistent message has elevated here in Washington," said ASG's Chris Bertelli. "There are now several federal regulations that apply to their activities, but they are generally broad in nature. One thing that's lacking is an industry standard. That's something we definitely want to be engaged in."

The Steele Foundation, a San Francisco-based firm with about 50 employees operating in Iraq, followed suit by hiring former ambassador Robert Frowick on April 13 to help manage "strategic government relationships" in Washington, according to a statement.

The most likely regulations being considered involve how much experience these companies and their employees must have in the region and with the military in order to be eligible for Pentagon contracts.

But given the harrowing conditions in Iraq - and bearing in mind the fierce competition for such work - more established firms, such as Steele, are actually advocating a tightening of the rules that govern their business.

"We feel there should be standardization," said Tom Stallings, Steele's director of marketing. "A lot of the corporations that are working over there are newly formed groups. ... We've been operating in the Middle East for more than 14 years."

Not all such groups, however, are rushing to increase their DC presence. A spokesman for CSC, whose subsidiary, DynCorp, has been called "the world's premier rent-a-cop business" by Gulf News, insisted, "We have seen no increase in media attention, and we are not looking to hire anyone."

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