Oliver Poole speaks to the mercenaries who risk their lives to earn £400 a day
May 04, 2004
By Oliver Poole
It is rush hour in Baghdad and the cars are bumper to bumper, the air filled with the sound of hooting horns. "This is not good," said the figure in the passenger seat clutching a German sub-machinegun.
"Man on the corner with an AK47," he radioed to the car behind, and then more softly to the driver: "Keep moving. Don't stop."
Behind is a blue 4 x 4 carrying three Fijians, all equipped with battered guns formerly issued to the Iraqi army.
Everyone wears bullet-resistant vests. Before the two cars - two so that no one is ever stranded by the side of the road in the event of a breakdown - had pulled out of the underground car park in their safe house, those inside had been instructed on the defensive formation to be assumed if something went wrong.
"We're not here to fight a war but we're ready to defend ourselves to the maximum of our capability," was their message. None of the guns had the safety catch on.
Despite their weaponry, no one in the two vehicles is in the military. They are part of the second biggest force in Iraq after the Americans' 135,000-strong contingent. That is not the British with their 10,000 soldiers, nor the Italians' 3,000-strong force, but the 30 private military firms numbering some 20,000 personnel.
They are not under orders from Central Military Command, share no common rules of engagement, have no risk of a court martial nor are bound by the Geneva Convention. The only reason any of them are there is money, on average £400 a day.
The jobs they do are the ones that are too dull or too messy for the military forces. The roles vary from security to the far darker side of operations in Iraq.
The soldiers at the centre of last week's allegations of torture and sexual abuse of prisoners in a US-run jail outside Baghdad blamed commercially contracted interrogators - men for hire - for ordering them to commit the abuse.
One of the biggest operators in the country, and the one whose employees were in the cars inching their way through the traffic of downtown Baghdad, is the British-based Global Risk International, with 1,000 people in Iraq.
Its desire to distance itself from the "idiots" led to an invitation to The Telegraph to observe its normally media-shy world. Its staff's work focuses on guarding convoys of American military equipment down from the Turkish border in runs described as something out of a Mad Max film, the vehicles stripped down and bristling with weaponry.
Its men guard a number of the most important buildings in Baghdad's "Green Zone", the two-square-mile area surrounded by fences and checkpoints which contains the leading military and administrative headquarters.
The company hired hundreds of former British Army Gurkhas to check the ID of everyone entering the buildings and to man the machinegun posts defending them.
It stresses it was the first security company in Iraq to draw up strict rules of engagement with the governing authority. Its men's role is defensive, not offensive, it insists - but the reality is, if threatened, "we can kill".
And however strict their rules of engagement, these commercial soldiers have done just that.
Tim, a 28-year-old former Australian special forces officer and an expert in recapturing oilrigs taken by terrorists, described how they had come under fire while guarding a government HQ in Hilla, south of Baghdad.
"Once we started firing, the firepower was overwhelming," he said. The skirmish left one Iraqi dead, one injured and a further nine arrested. During last year's currency exchange programme the company's team leader, a Zimbabwean ex-Royal Marine called Paul, and his team had to fight their way in and out of one town, killing an estimated six people.
On another occasion, when they were ambushed at a checkpoint, two of their own men were killed. Both were Fijian, Global's other Third World soldier of choice as its military was for years based in Lebanon as part of a United Nations force, so many speak Arabic. During the currency exchange a battalion of them had been shipped in.
Certainly the men I met during three days with the company - primarily South Africans, Britons, Zimbabweans and Americans - knew their business. All had a pedigree: either special forces or elite regiments, though none was without some eccentricities.
Leading the unit picking me up at Baghdad airport was Graham, Zimbabwean-born and a former French Legionnaire, a citizen now of Ireland where he proudly says he never visits, so never has to pay tax. He owns land in Fiji where one day he will build a retirement home.
Why are security contractors and not soldiers doing these jobs in Iraq? "We are better trained. We are older. We have got families back home we want to get back to."
Or, as one of his colleagues put it, they would not panic when things turned nasty. "War is not a pretty place," he said. "Old warriors like us know that war does not bring flowers but death and bullets and you will lose good friends."
That was Denny, a 30-something Glaswegian with stubble consuming his handlebar moustache. A former Royal Marine who found it difficult to reintegrate into civilian life, he lived barefoot in the Australian rainforest for a year with the Aborigines before ending up earning the pay of a "director" in Iraq.
How many hits has he inflicted in firefights? "No comment."
The Pentagon has signed 3,000 contracts with some 30 private military firms, which is estimated to have siphoned away 15 per cent of the £10 billion allocated by Congress to the regeneration of Iraq.
Rarely do companies conduct criminal record checks. Even respected firms like Global rely primarily on the old boy network of regiments to determine a potential recruit's reputation.
Other firms are far less strict. Fabrizio Quattrochi, the Italian armed security contractor murdered earlier this month after being kidnapped by the "Prophet's Green Brigade", had rather thin qualifications: a military reservist whose hobby was martial arts.
Now Global and other leading British firms are pushing for every company in the arena to have standardised operating guidelines and rules of engagement.
Global employees describe their frustration when the company found five of its Gurkhas had links with Maoist rebels in Nepal and, when its personnel tried to remove them, one attacked a former Coldstream Guard with an iron bar, fracturing his skull.
As we crawled through traffic in the car, a helicopter buzzed overhead owned by Blackwater, the American security company hired to guard Paul Bremer, the US- appointed civilian administrator.
The helicopter in the air meant their charge was on the move. A figure with a machinegun was silhouetted in the doorway, a soldier of fortune at the very centre of Iraq's regeneration project.
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