Even as Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi attempts to assert his nation's newly restored sovereignty, he travels through his own turbulent land and around the Middle East with a protection detail supplied by the U.S. military.
Allawi's accompaniment by gun-toting Americans - in plainclothes but with U.S. flags on their vests - has been noted with dismay by some critics in Iraq and the Arab world as a visible symbol of his dependence on the United States, experts on the region say.
But with a price placed on Allawi's head in a recent posting on a jihadist Web site, and other government officials already killed by insurgents, Allawi has evidently calculated that the increased security provided by the Americans is worth any possible damage to his credibility.
Specialists on Iraq say Allawi, who almost died in a bloody attack by agents of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in London in 1978, must strike a difficult balance of security and sovereignty.
"Allawi has to have a competent security organization that can't be infiltrated, and the Americans may be his only choice," said Phebe Marr, a respected scholar and author of A Modern History of Iraq. "However, it can be used by opponents of the regime to claim he's a puppet of the United States. It gives ammunition to the opposition."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, another U.S. ally trying to restore order in a war-torn country, also has been guarded by U.S. Special Forces as well as contractors.
But even as U.S. soldiers guard the Iraqi leader, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John D. Negroponte, is protected by private contractors. Under a $21 million contract, Blackwater Security Consulting of Moyock, N.C., has continued to provide bodyguards for Negroponte, as the company did for L. Paul Bremer III, the civilian administrator before the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty June 28.
"It's essentially a continuation of the contract that covered Bremer," said Blackwater spokesman Chris Bertelli.
A U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, 1st Sgt. Steve Valley, confirmed the American role in guarding Allawi but declined to give details for reasons of "operational security."
"The Iraqi interim government has asked for assistance in providing security while the situation in the country remains unsettled," Valley said from Baghdad. "The U.S. military has provided advisers to the Iraqi bodyguards for Prime Minister Allawi. The advisers are trained in the techniques of personal protection."
The spokesman said the arrangement "will continue until the Iraqi interim government concludes that it's no longer necessary."
Valley declined to say what U.S. military units have contributed to Allawi's guard. "What if the insurgents find out which units are involved and start scoping out their family members in the states?" he asked.
But one father of a Rhode Island National Guard member recruited for the protection unit seemed to have no qualms about such a threat.
Thomas J. Sousa Sr. said his son, 28-year-old Thomas J. Sousa Jr., told him the security detail consists of U.S. Special Forces commandos, including Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, backed up by other soldiers. The younger Sousa, who serves with the 103rd Field Artillery Brigade, was selected in June for the job, his father said.
A U.S. expert on Iraqi security also said on condition of anonymity that Navy SEALs are among Allawi's guards. A spokesman for the Naval Special Warfare Command, Lt. Taylor Clark, declined to confirm or deny the SEALs' role, saying, "We do not go into the details of specific missions for Naval Special Warfare personnel."
Questions sent from The Sun by e-mail to the press department of the Iraqi interim government got no response.
In news photographs of Allawi's visit to a car-bombing site in Baghdad July 14, American bodyguards with flags on their vests surrounded the Iraqi prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. No Iraqi guards were in evidence, so the Americans appeared to be taking more than an advisory role.
Nimrod Raphaeli, an Iraqi-born Israeli who works as senior analyst at the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington, said the U.S. flags are a serious mistake.
"People can see by their faces that they're Americans," he said of the bodyguards. "But I'd say the flag is an insult to the Iraqi people."
Nonetheless, Raphaeli said, Allawi's decision to accept American protection is understandable. "It's a very difficult balancing act," he said.
In a Web posting July 15, terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, blamed by U.S. authorities for several major bombings and kidnappings, offered a $280,000 bounty for Allawi's murder. "There are a lot of people who want to kill him and undermine the effort he's made to stabilize the country," Raphaeli said.
Threat of insiders