Pentagon seeking private security firm to police Iraq

With large parts of Iraq still gripped by lawlessness and guerrilla warfare, the Pentagon is planning to hire a private security firm to arm and train thousands of former Iraqi soldiers to guard government buildings, pipelines and other important installations.

The Pentagon has been in talks with the private security firm Kroll to train the former soldiers to take over duties at spots now guarded by US soldiers. The guards would carry small-arms and be responsible for security at up to 2,000 sites.

The plan has two main aims. It would provide jobs for some of the Iraqi soldiers unemployed since the US administration in Iraq formally disbanded the army, and officials hope it could also ease tensions where local people resent occupying troops as guards.

"The idea, first and foremost, is to have Iraqis providing security for Iraq at places like the national museum and other fixed sites and there are civilian companies that do that very well," a senior military official told The New York Times. "An added benefit is that it will reduce the load on US troops."

Although the US has 150,000 soldiers in Iraq, the Pentagon admits their presence has been stretched thin, the lack of numbers exacerbated by an unexpected level of resistance from Iraqi fighters.

This week, the US officer in charge of US forces in Iraq, General John Abizaid, the new head of Central Command, said troops may have to expect year-long tours of duty to deal with what he described as a "classic guerrilla-type campaign".

About 150 US soldiers have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq with the toll rising almost every day. Underlining the seriousness of the threat the occupying forces face, another American soldier was killed yesterday when a bomb detonated a under a military convoy in the city of Fallujah.

A senior executive at Kroll, Anne Tiedemann, said company officials had been involved in a "brain-storming session" with the US-led civilian authority in Iraq. "Our sense is that the military has too much on its plate and that these are issues that need to be addressed and the way to do that is through the private sector," she said.

A Pentagon advisory team has reported that the opportunity for achieving postwar success in Iraq and establishing a peace is closing fast. The team of experts said immediate and dramatic action was required by the US if the situation was to be turned around.

"The hearts and minds of key segments of the Sunni and Shia communities are in play and can be won but only if the coalition provisional authority and new Iraqi authorities deliver in short order," said the report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, whose experts travelled to Iraq at the request, and expense, of the Pentagon.

The team made 32 recommendations to bring about a rapid improvement, and warned that the next three months would be crucial.

It also explicitly criticised the Bush administration for not more fully involving the international community and the United Nations in the postwar reconstruction. "The scope of the challenges, the financial requirements, and rising anti-Americanism in parts of Iraq argue for a new coalition that includes countries and organisations beyond the original war-fighting coalition," it said.

Meanwhile a CIA analysis has determined that an audiotape aired on Arab television this week was "probably" the voice of Saddam Hussein. A US intelligence official said: "The exact date of the recording cannot be determined, but it could very well have been recorded in recent days." The message called for resistance "to inflict losses and evict the enemy from Iraq".

¿ Mowaffaq Alani, Iraq's ambassador to China, has taken over his embassy in Beijing at pistol-point and locked out other diplomats, refusing US orders to return to Baghdad, the diplomats said.

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