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Security Contractors: Riding Shotgun With Our Shadow Army in Iraq

They've given me a machine gun and 180 rounds of ammo, and told me not to pee for six hours.

| Tue Apr. 24, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Evening in Erbil, Kurdistan, what passes for an oasis of peace in Iraq. It's March 2006, and I'm waiting for a ride down to Baghdad along one of the world's most dangerous roads, a six-hour drive through the Sunni Triangle. A few years ago, I would have taken a taxi, but now the insurgents run roadblocks looking for targets—soldiers, contractors, journalists. I can't rely on the Iraqi police, who are as likely to turn me over to insurgents for money as to be insurgents themselves. And then there are the improvised explosive devices, hidden in rubbish, wreckage, dead goats. I had a close encounter in 2003, when I rode with a convoy of trucks ferrying mail and supplies through the Sunni Triangle to U.S. Army bases. An ied detonated a second too early, exploding just in front of us rather than beneath us. We drove through the cloud of shrapnel, dust, and smoke before I had a chance to get scared. This time, though, I have a long trip south to consider all the possible dangers.

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The only way to avoid being seized by one of the many militias that terrorize Iraq is to travel with your own militia, and so the documentary film director I am working for has paid $7,000 to a private security company to take us to Baghdad. Our convoy of four armored Ford F-350 pickup trucks, each containing four or five men apiece, is commanded by two American security contractors whose call signs are Steeler and Pirate (for security reasons, several contractors in this piece asked that I not identify them or their companies). Steeler is a taut guy from Pennsylvania; a former Army Ranger, he served in Iraq with the National Guard and then returned for a salary several times higher. He will take the lead vehicle, eyeing the road for potential threats, a task suited to his taciturn nature. Pirate is the convoy commander. A burly, bearded former Green Beret, he has worked as a private security contractor in Haiti and Africa. I ride in his truck, its window bearing evidence of a recent attack near western Baghdad's Spaghetti Junction, where heavy-caliber machine-gun fire spiderwebbed the bulletproof glass. On the bed at the back of each truck, reinforced "up-armored" housings hold rear gunners and their belt-fed Russian machine guns. Our gunners are all Kurds. The insurgents are mostly Arabs, and the company Pirate and Steeler work for believes Kurds are less likely to be infiltrated, plus Kurds have a long tradition of guerrilla fighting against heavy odds.

As the sun sets on the dusty compound, I watch the men clean their weapons and piece them back together. They check the engines one last time, top off gas and oil, confirm they have enough water and candy bars. Steeler and Pirate test their transponders, hooked up to a satellite network called Tapestry that tracks private security vehicles in Iraq. Ever since the deadly confusion that occurred in 2004 when Blackwater U.S.A. private security agents were ambushed, killed, and hung from a bridge in Fallujah, the U.S. government requires private security vehicles to carry transponders, and contractors comply in part because it lowers their insurance rates. Drivers who are attacked hit a panic button, and Tapestry transmits an sos to every military ops center in Iraq, the security company's ops center, and the Reconstruction Operations Center (roc) that coordinates the private/military response. Inside Baghdad's Green Zone, in a room not unlike nasa's mission control, roc staff monitor screens 24 hours a day as panic alarms ring throughout the country. Run by a mix of military officers and contractors, roc falls under the control of the Iraq Project and Contracting Office, which is an office of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. It is part of the elaborate contractor exoskeleton that has superimposed itself on Iraq, a parallel invasion.

There are more than 125,000 U.S.-funded contractors in Iraq, doing everything from maintaining supply lines to building hospitals to performing clerical work to guarding U.S. officials; this equates to about two-thirds the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq, and does not include all subcontractors. Some contractors have only a few employees in country, while the largest—kbr, which is being spun off from Halliburton—has 50,000 workers there. The surge reflects the administration's privatization philosophy, former Halliburton ceo Dick Cheney's influence—and just how thinly stretched the military now is in Iraq. All those nonmilitary personnel need guarding, and as of November, at least 177 private security companies employed 48,000 people in Iraq. The State Department reports that security costs account for 16 to 22 percent of reconstruction projects—a considerable part of the overruns plaguing such contracts; so far $4 billion in U.S. tax dollars has been spent on private security contractors. Despite these efforts, more than 800 contractors of all nationalities have been killed and 3,300 injured; 119 American contractors (95 of them kbr employees) have been awarded the Defense of Freedom medal, described as "the civilian equivalent of the military's Purple Heart."

These numbers don't seem academic when Steeler and Pirate hand me a small MP-5 submachine gun. Should we come under attack, they figure, the more armed men the better. I have fired only M-16s and AK-47s, so they give me a crash course and several magazines full of ammunition. Pirate and Steeler sling on their Kalashnikovs—which rest next to the bags of grenades that hang from their sides—and call ahead to their HQ, where call sign Ilwaco mans the company's Tapestry interface like a nervous parent. We're good to go.

Although it is spring, a chill blows into the trucks, carrying with it the smell of dust. We will rely on darkness and speed to survive, making no stops and driving without headlights as fast as possible the 220 miles to Baghdad. What if nature calls, I ask. "Tie a knot," they tell me.

The U.S. military has assigned Iraq's roads American names, creating a hidden cartography that soldiers and contractors navigate, but one that might as well be in invisible ink if you're an Iraqi. We head south on Route Santa Fe. Due to curfews, only the police are out, manning checkpoints and roadblocks. Our F-350s slow to wind through the barriers, briefly shining our headlights on shivering Iraqi police. Steeler and Pirate maintain constant contact with Ilwaco—describing our location, checkpoints encountered and traversed—as we continue on Route Clemson southwest toward Tikrit and then take Route Tampa south to Baghdad. South of Balad the road is blocked by American soldiers and Iraqi police searching for ieds. We cross into the northbound lane and continue south, passing Ad Dujayl, a town famous because Saddam Hussein massacred its inhabitants. As we drive through the village of Mushahidah, the road is totally blocked by American military vehicles; soldiers have discovered an ied.

Our convoy circles into a defensive position, our client vehicle in the center. The road is unlit, both sides lined with tall reeds partially blocking the village's homes beyond. When it becomes clear we might be here for a while, we all step out to relieve ourselves, peering uneasily into the darkness. "One of ours was martyred here," a Kurd tells me, explaining that a few months earlier a convoy was attacked by Sunni insurgents. "They're all Wahhabis," he says with disgust.

For three hours we wait, the Kurds fanning out and scanning the shadows. Finally the American soldiers signal that the road is clear. Our convoy rumbles down to Baghdad, where we take Route Senators to the film company's compound, surrounded by tall concrete barriers and an army of security guards.

Foreigners in Iraq's capital inhabit a world of compounds and armed convoys, moving from one fortress to another as if island-hopping in shark-infested waters. In their operations rooms, security companies and even newspaper bureaus have maps outlining the city and its routes, and noting attacks and their locations, bodies found, sniper activity, ieds, and small-arms fire. Standard operating procedure requires all convoys—whether they're transporting military supplies or documentary filmmakers—to give roc a 24-hour notice, and to conduct advance work to reconnoiter the routes. A security contractor working for the bbc told me that he planned reporting trips like military operations, three days in advance, sending in teams of Iraqis to map out the area before escorting the journalists to do their reporting. Security contractors take other precautions: changing cars and alternating routes, switching from "high-profile" vehicles (like F-350s) to "low-profile" vehicles (old sedans), hoping they won't get stuck in traffic or encounter a "vehicle-borne ied"—a suicide car bomber. Because the reality is that if they come under attack, troops might not be available, or willing, to bail them out. Families of some contractors who've been killed charge that their loved ones have been inadequately equipped by the corporations that hire them, and abandoned under fire by the military they are there to assist.

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