When Iraqi police raided the Baghdad home and offices of politician Ahmad Chalabi on May 20, U.S. officials hurried to distance themselves, saying that the operation was an Iraqi affair and that no U.S. government employees were involved.
But eight armed American contractors paid by a U.S. State Department program went on the raid, directing and encouraging the Iraqi police officers who eyewitnesses say ripped out computers, turned over furniture and smashed photographs.
Some of the Americans helped themselves to baklava, apples and diet soda from Chalabi's refrigerator, and enjoyed their looted snacks in a garden outside, according to members of Chalabi's staff who were there.
The contractors work for DynCorp, a subsidiary of California-based Computer Sciences Corp. and the company in charge of training and advising Iraqi police through a State Department contract.
A State Department official confirmed the DynCorp workers' presence during the raid. A DynCorp spokesman declined to comment.
The participation of gun-toting American contractors paid by U.S. taxpayers in a raid that the U.S. government has insisted it did not order is only the latest instance of problems posed by the estimated 20,000 contract security workers serving with more than 60 companies in Iraq.
As Iraqis with varying religious, tribal and political affiliations take more power over security forces with the planned transfer of limited sovereignty June 30, the U.S. contractors' role is likely to become still more thorny, experts say. The Senate Armed Services Committee said in a May 11 report that the number of contract security workers in Iraq "could more than triple over the next several months." It requested an accounting of their activities from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"Who is in charge of the DynCorp employees?" asked Deborah Avant, a political scientist at George Washington University who is completing a book on security contractors. "Is it the Iraqi interior minister [who controls the police]? Is it the Coalition Provisional Authority? Is it the State Department, and who in the State Department? That unclarity can lead to unprofessional behavior and worse."
`Observe and advise'
A spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority said after the raid that the contractors "work for the [Iraqi] Ministry of the Interior" and were there "to observe and advise the Iraqi police during this operation, as they do on numerous operations."
The only other non-Iraqi present was an American employee of Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.
That person, INC financial adviser Peg Bartel, described American contractors urging the police officers on as they ransacked the premises. When Bartel challenged the contractors, they "threatened me," she recounted in a telephone interview from Baghdad. "They said I wouldn't like the inside of an Iraqi jail."
She also said that the Americans' taking food and beverages, although not a grave offense in the wartime context, hardly set a good example.
"They stole it," she said. "This is the way they train the Iraqi police?"
A spokesman for DynCorp, Mike Dickerson, said, "I can neither confirm nor deny participation by DynCorp employees in these raids." Dickerson said the company's contract with the State Department restricts its ability to comment publicly, adding, "Neither do we comment on unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo."
Privatizing the war
Concern about the burgeoning role of private security companies in Iraq was heightened after four contractors with Blackwater Security were killed and their bodies burned and mutilated March 31 in Fallujah.
A month later, news emerged that contractors with CACI International were working as interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison and that some were implicated by an Army investigation in the abuse of detainees.
As in the prison scandal, the contractors' involvement in the Chalabi raid blurs the lines of authority and accountability in a politically volatile situation.
"You have a situation where Americans are implicated and no one knows who they are or what agency they're with," said Peter W. Singer, an expert on military contractors at the Brookings Institution. "The more news that comes out, the more there's a sense that contracting is out of control."
Chalabi, a longtime exile and founder of the Iraqi National Congress, was a Pentagon favorite who was flown into Iraq as U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein. A member of the Iraqi Governing Council, he has since been accused of fueling the Bush administration's push for war by providing false intelligence exaggerating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and leaking sensitive U.S. intelligence to Iran, charges he denies.
The controversy over Chalabi is separate from the role and conduct of DynCorp police advisers in the raid.