Tom Bowman reports for US National Public Radio --- audio is also available:
A U.S. Army helicopter brigade is set to pull out of Baghdad in December, as part of an agreement with the Iraqi government to remove U.S. forces. So the armed helicopters flying over the Iraqi capital next year will have pilots and machine gunners from DynCorp International, a company based in Virginia.
On the ground, it's the same story. American soldiers and Marines will leave. Those replacing them, right down to carrying assault weapons, will come from places with names like Aegis Defence Services and Global Strategies Group — eight companies in all.
All U.S. combat forces are scheduled to leave Iraq by year's end, but there will still be a need for security. That means American troops will be replaced by a private army whose job will be to protect diplomats.
Already, the State Department is approving contracts, but there are questions about whether it makes sense to turn over this security job to private companies.
Security For The State Department
Overseeing the armed personnel is Patrick Kennedy, a top State Department official.
"I think the number of State Department security contractors would be somewhere in the area of between 4,500 and 5,000," Kennedy says.
That's roughly the size of an Army brigade, and double the number of private security contractors there now.
The State Department has an in-house security force, but it has just 2,000 people to cover the entire world. They handle everything from protecting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to guarding embassies and consulates.
Kennedy says for a tough job like Iraq, he needs help.
"In a situation like this, where you have a surge requirement that exceeds the capability of the State Department, it is normal practice to contract out for personnel to assist during those surge periods," he says.
A Shaky Record
But the State Department has a shaky record overseeing armed guards. A recent congressional study found that many contractor abuses in Iraq were caused by those working for the State Department, not for the Pentagon.
The most notorious was the shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007. Guards with the private security contractor Blackwater opened fire while protecting a State Department convoy. A U.S. investigation later found there was no threat to that convoy.
Among those contractors who will be working in Iraq next year is International Development Services, a company with links to Blackwater, now renamed Xe Services.
State Department officials say they've made changes since that deadly incident in Baghdad. There are now more State Department supervisors; contractors must take an interpreter on all convoys; and companies can be penalized for poor performance.
But Grant Green, a member of the Commission on Wartime Contracting created by Congress, says that's not enough. He told a House panel recently that the State Department still isn't ready to assume responsibility for Iraq next year.
"They do not have enough oversight today to oversee and manage those contractors in the way they should be," Green says.