THE ‘COALITION OF THE BILLING’….The Washington Post’s Steve Fainaru had a fascinating item a couple of weeks ago in which he detailed the extent of the work private military contractors are doing in Iraq. The piece described an environment in which more than 100 private security companies operate outside of Iraqi law, providing protection for top administration officials.

Fainaru didn’t nail down just how big a private force we’re talking about, but today, the LA Times’ T. Christian Miller adds some surprising details.

The number of U.S.-paid private contractors in Iraq now exceeds that of American combat troops, newly released figures show, raising fresh questions about the privatization of the war effort and the government’s capacity to carry out military and rebuilding campaigns.

More than 180,000 civilians — including Americans, foreigners and Iraqis — are working in Iraq under U.S. contracts, according to State and Defense department figures obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Some of this is admittedly a little fuzzy. As James Joyner noted, a majority of these civilians working in Iraq are, in fact, Iraqis. What’s more, they’re taking on construction and infrastructure duties, not security roles.

I’d add, however, that the 180,000 civilians also doesn’t fully include thousands of Americans, financed by public U.S. funds, who are providing private security. How many thousands? According to the Times piece, somewhere between 6,000 and 30,000, all of whom are operating outside the chain of command and independent of Iraqi law.

That these ambiguities exist at all underscores part of the problem. No one seems to know how many contractors are there, what their responsibilities are, and/or how many of them are being killed.

Ultimately, uncertainties aside, it’s still the biggest military outsourcing project anyone’s ever seen. As Brookings’ Peter Singer concluded, the numbers of private contractors “illustrate better than anything that we went in without enough troops. This is not the coalition of the willing. It’s the coalition of the billing.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.