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Jeremy Scahill Headshot

Bush's Mercenary Revolution

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If you think the U.S. has only 160,000 troops in Iraq, think again.

With almost no congressional oversight and even less public awareness, the Bush administration has more than doubled the size of the U.S. occupation through the use of private war companies.

There are now almost 200,000 private "contractors" deployed in Iraq by Washington. This means that U.S. military forces in Iraq are now outsized by a coalition of billing corporations whose actions go largely unmonitored and whose crimes are virtually unpunished.

In essence, the Bush administration has created a shadow army that can be used to wage wars unpopular with the American public but extremely profitable for a few unaccountable private companies.

Since the launch of the "global war on terror," the administration has systematically funneled billions of dollars in public money to corporations like Blackwater USA , DynCorp, Triple Canopy, Erinys and ArmorGroup. They have in turn used their lucrative government pay-outs to build up the infrastructure and reach of private armies so powerful that they rival or outgun some nation's militaries.

"I think it's extraordinarily dangerous when a nation begins to outsource its monopoly on the use of force and the use of violence in support of its foreign policy or national security objectives," says veteran U.S . Diplomat Joe Wilson, who served as the last U.S. ambassador to Iraq before the 1991 Gulf War.

The billions of dollars being doled out to these companies, Wilson argues, "makes of them a very powerful interest group within the American body politic and an interest group that is in fact armed. And the question will arise at some time: to whom do they owe their loyalty?"

During the 1991 Gulf War, the ratio of troops to private contractors was about 60 to 1. Today, it is the contractors who outnumber U.S. forces in Iraq. As of July 2007, there were more than 630 war contracting companies working in Iraq for the United States. Composed of some 180,000 individual personnel drawn from more than 100 countries, the army of contractors surpasses the official U.S. military presence of 160,000 troops.

In all, the United States may have as many as 400,000 personnel occupying Iraq, not including allied nations' militaries. The statistics on contractors do not account for all armed contractors. Last year, a U.S. government report estimated there were 48,000 people working for more than 170 private military companies in Iraq. "It masks the true level of American involvement," says Ambassador Wilson.

This revolution also means the United States no longer needs to rely on its own citizens to fight its wars, nor does it need to implement a draft, which would have made the Iraq war politically untenable.

The Iraq war has ushered in a new system. Wealthy nations can recruit the world's poor, from countries that have no direct stake in the conflict, and use them as cannon fodder to conquer weaker nations. This allows the conquering power to hold down domestic casualties -- the single-greatest impediment to waging wars like the one in Iraq. Indeed, in Iraq, more than 1,000 contractors working for the U.S. occupation have been killed with another 13,000 wounded. Most are not American citizens, and these numbers are not counted in the official death toll at a time when Americans are increasingly disturbed by casualties.

In many ways, it is the same corporate model of relying on cheap labor in destitute nations to staff their uber-profitable operations. The giant multinationals also argue they are helping the economy by hiring locals, even if it's at starvation wages.

"Donald Rumsfeld's masterstroke, and his most enduring legacy, was to bring the corporate branding revolution of the 1990s into the heart of the most powerful military in the world," says Naomi Klein, whose upcoming book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, explores these themes.

"We have now seen the emergence of the hollow army. Much as with so-called hollow corporations like Nike, billions are spent on military technology and design in rich countries while the manual labor and sweat work of invasion and occupation is increasingly outsourced to contractors who compete with each other to fill the work order for the lowest price. Just as this model breeds rampant abuse in the manufacturing sector -- with the big-name brands always able to plead ignorance about the actions of their suppliers -- so it does in the military, though with stakes that are immeasurably higher."

To read my latest report, published today by The Indypendent newspaper, go here.