The office monitoring reconstruction projects in Iraq has awarded a $293 million contract to oversee security to a British firm headed by a longtime proponent of using hired, private foreign forces to intervene in third-world civil wars.

The contract, the largest yet awarded for security in Iraq, calls for Aegis Defense Services to provide armed bodyguards for employees of the Program Management Office, which is supposed to oversee $18.4 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds after the June 30 turnover of some government functions to Iraqi authorities. The contract also calls for Aegis to coordinate security operations throughout Iraq with thousands of private contractors.

Aegis is headed by Tim Spicer, a former lieutenant colonel in the Scots Guards who was hired by warring political parties in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. Those contracts, which were aimed at battling insurgents, sparked controversies and formal inquiries in those nations and in Britain about the role of Spicer's "private military company," as he described Sandline International, the firm he headed then.

Sandline's work in 1997 to quell rebels operating on an island with a lucrative copper mine in Papua New Guinea was followed by an army rebellion and a coup, and the elected government collapsed, according to news accounts at the time.

The company's 1998 intervention in Sierra Leone on the side of the elected government in exile included plans to supply arms at a time when a United Nations arms embargo was in place, a British parliamentary inquiry found. The inquiry determined that guns were shipped but cleared British ministers of trying to circumvent the ban. Sandline said it had British government approval for its actions. The Sierra Leone rebels also were defeated.

In his bid for the Iraq security contract, Spicer disclosed his military service and said he had done private security work in "Southeast Asia" and "Africa" since 1995. The disclosure gave no further details about what he did there, said an Army spokesman, Maj. Gary C. Tallman. Army contracting officers from Fort Eustis, Va., which vetted the bidders, would not have done a computer search or other search of news accounts on Spicer as part of their review, Tallman said.

The information provided by Spicer, who is Aegis's chief executive, "is everything that is required under current contracting policy," Tallman said. A financial review was conducted to ensure Aegis had the resources to fulfill the contract, and records were checked to see if Aegis had been previously barred from doing U.S. government work, he added.

"There's nothing else required, and whatever else occurred in the past is in the past, and we wouldn't necessarily know about it," Tallman said.

Aegis confirmed it had received the contract but declined further comment through its spokeswoman, Sara Pearson, in London. "We haven't sought publicity," she said.

Tony Hunter-Choat, security director for the Program Management Office and a retired British brigadier, said he knew about Spicer's past activities, and "while there are elements of truth" in the news accounts, some information "is wide of the mark." Aegis is already at work under his supervision, Hunter-Choat said.

Spicer's advisory council at Aegis includes a retired British general and a former British permanent representative to the United Nations. "Those two have such impeccable credentials as to never for one minute be associated publicly with a company or individual about whom they had any doubt," Hunter-Choat said.

The selection of Aegis, he said, does not indicate a more offensive posture on security in Iraq as "their work is purely defensive."

Corporate records available online show Aegis was incorporated in Britain in September 2002. Spicer resigned as Sandline's chief executive in September 2000, and Sandline ended operations in April 2004, saying on its Web site that the decision was due to "general lack of government support for Private Military Companies willing to help end armed conflicts in places like Africa, in the absence of effective international intervention."

Aegis was chosen from among six bidders for the large-scale security effort in Iraq "based on the criterion that was sought and Aegis' technical capability, not so much the cost," Tallman said. Bids were sought in February, and the award to Aegis was made in late May.

The contract is for $92 million for the first year and a maximum of $293 million over three years. The government solicitation sought as many as 75 two-man personal security details a day to protect Program Management Office employees from "assassination, kidnapping, injury and embarrassment." The security personnel also were required to have such skills as "mobile vehicle warfare" and "counter-sniping" and to be able to protect sites against "indirect fire and attacks by small units." Combating greater threats was for coalition military forces. The other main job for the contractor was to gather and disseminate security information for companies working on reconstruction.

Doug Brooks, an acquaintance of Spicer's and president of the International Peace Operations Association, a District-based association of private firms that provide military services, said "there is no question Sandline was instrumental in restoring democracy in Sierra Leone." Brooks also said Spicer has "a colorful past, but there is no provision in contract law to deny a contract because someone has a colorful past."

Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.