WASHINGTON — For the businessmen who flocked to a government conference this month to learn how they might bid on Iraq contracts, the word from some who had been on the ground was sobering.
A hush fell over the crowd when a Halliburton Co. official showed a slide of a dented silver belt buckle. The buckle, he said, had saved a company truck driver's life by deflecting a bullet during one of the more than 130 insurgent attacks on Halliburton workers.
Timothy B. Mills, a former Pentagon lawyer, deepened the gloom when he told how a Baghdad hotel clerk's decision to give him a room in the back of the Palestine Hotel, instead of the room with a view in the front, saved his life in a rocket attack.
"This is part and parcel of doing business in Iraq," Mills, now with the firm Patton Boggs, warned the group.
For businessmen here and abroad, the good news is that the U.S. government is planning to pour more than $18 billion into rebuilding Iraq's antiquated and battered infrastructure. The bad news is that the influx of money is expected to make Iraq more dangerous.
U.S. and corporate officials fear that the thousands of additional workers expected to fan out across Iraq in the coming months to build utilities, ministries, schools and hospitals will prove irresistible targets for insurgents. As it puts the finishing touches on the bidding process, the Pentagon worries that the high security costs and high risks will scare off small firms and entrepreneurs and slow the reconstruction effort.
Until now, most of the estimated 12,000 contract employees in Iraq have been concentrated in a few areas and mostly shielded by U.S. troops, barbed wire and concrete barriers. In the months ahead, as their numbers multiply, private contractors will move into remote areas far from military protection.
"Everybody's worried about this security issue," said Robert Fardi, vice president of Amira Group, which is expanding its business in Iraq but struggling with partners who are unwilling to enter the country. "There are still lots of people who want to take the risk. But it's frightening, absolutely frightening."
In the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in March, insurgents did not have contractors at the top of their hit list. But that changed as rebels sought less-protected targets and tried to hobble the coalition by striking groups that work with the military.
In hundreds of attacks on contract employees, several dozen personnel have been killed or wounded, U.S. officials and contractors estimate. They can offer no breakdown on how many of those casualties resulted in deaths and how many were injuries, and caution that the figures are imprecise because they rely on voluntary reports from contractors.
San Diego's Titan Corp., which provides thousands of translators to the military in Iraq, has lost 13 employees in attacks since July. A company spokesman did not return repeated phone calls from The Times for comment on the deaths.
Halliburton subsidiary KBR, formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root, said two of its employees and six subcontract employees have been killed and four subcontract workers are classified as "missing."
The potential damage to reconstruction efforts was illustrated this month when 60 workers for a South Korean electrical company pulled out after two colleagues were killed in an ambush. Their departure delayed work on the country's electrical grid, one of the occupation authority's highest priority missions.
The U.S. Agency for International Development last month began discussing how to shift some back-office contract workers to neighboring countries for greater safety, Jack Wheelock, head of the agency's Iraq infrastructure project, said at a recent Pentagon conference.
Authorities also are urging newly arriving contractors to fortify themselves in expensive, heavily armed base camps with secure communications and supply "life lines" to ensure that they can summon help if they come under attack.
Pentagon officials recommend that contractors be guarded around the clock, encircled with multiple lines of defense and shielded by 10-foot concrete blast barriers, sometimes called "Bremer walls" after the coalition's American administrator, L. Paul Bremer III.
The sites, Pentagon officials say, should be separated from roads by a 50-foot safety perimeter to protect against suicide bomb attacks. Inside the perimeter, they recommend constructing concentric defense lines, so contractors can repel attackers who clear away barriers with one vehicle, then send in a second to penetrate the site.
Attorney Mills, who works with several companies doing business in Iraq, says that there are about 100 such camps in Iraq but that the number could grow to as many as 500 when the new work is fully underway.
Despite such protections, insurgents can lob mortar shells into these modern Ft. Apaches or pick off individual workers in sniper attacks.