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.

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.

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.

"We're never going to war without the private security industry again in a non-draft environment," says former Marine colonel Jack Holly. As director of logistics of the embassy's Project and Contracting Office, Holly, who's an Army Corps of Engineers civilian employee, monitors all the private supply convoys bringing goods and equipment to Iraqi ministries. He tracks about 15 convoys a day. In 2003, 1 in 11 were attacked. Now 1 in 4 are, he says. In all, he's lost 129 men to insurgents.

Holly views the difference between working for the military and for a private security company in simple terms: "In the military you work for apple pie, mother, and the American flag. In a psc you work for apple pie, mother, the American flag, and the shareholders." In theory at least, private security contractors can operate at a lower cost than the military, and as civilians, they are less likely to be attacked by guerrillas—though in Iraq, neither theory has held true. Amid pressure to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq, Holly reckons private security contractors will pick up where the military leaves off. "People want a shrinking military presence, but the needs and mission don't shrink," he says.

In Holly's office, large flat screens displayed the supply trucks' movements. With so many armed men speeding, in the dark, through a war zone, a constant concern for Holly is "blue on white" incidents—U.S. troops accidentally firing on contractors—as well as "white on white," or contractors accidentally firing on each other.

Many of the convoys Holly monitors deliver goods and equipment to and from a giant supply depot in western Baghdad, where the insurgency is strong. The depot is a vast, fortified camp with sentry towers, housing complexes, trailers, and sand berms surrounding a gun range. Some $10 billion in goods bought with U.S. taxpayer funds have passed through it, and most of the contractors I meet have either guarded it, or taken goods to or from it.

For a few years, JB supervised a detachment of Kurds guarding the depot. JB had served 10 years with the Navy seals before joining the private sector. Prior to coming to Iraq in 2003, he'd protected the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations as well as U.S. diplomats in Kosovo and Africa. His résumé notes he has "trained and managed 410 peshmerga security search procedures for vehicles and personnel entering and exiting a secure, high profile logistics compound. Focus includes both Improvised Explosive Devices, insurgency, and merchandise control" as well as "Counter-insurgency techniques, reaction drills, tactical fire and maneuver, and defensive driving techniques."

Someone with JB's skill set can make hundreds of thousands a year in Iraq; indeed, the Special Forces have been forced to offer bonuses up to $150,000 to get such men to reenlist. The Geneva Conventions expressly ban the use of mercenaries—soldiers of fortune who fight for personal gain—so companies such as kbr are careful to distinguish their security forces from combat troops for hire, like the infamous South African company Executive Outcomes. But the distinction can be blurry at best. In a bar in Amman, Jordan, a popular way station en route to Iraq, I met a former British marine named Ross. "I make 10 times as much as I did in the military," said Ross, who worked for Diligence, a company founded by former cia and fbi chief William Webster and 40 percent owned by a wealthy Kuwaiti politician. Diligence's cochair is Joe Allbaugh, President Bush's 2000 campaign manager; in 2004 Diligence formed a joint venture with the now-defunct New Bridge Strategies, a firm founded by Allbaugh and gop strategist Ed Rogers to advise companies on doing business in reconstruction Iraq. Such entrepreneurial spirit had trickled down to Ross and his friends, who'd each invested tens of thousands of dollars in the Iraqi dinar, certain that the oil-rich country would eventually stabilize and the currency's value would shoot up.

For some, a job as a security contractor offers escape from political changes at home. Between 2,000 and 4,000 former South African soldiers and policemen work in Iraq. One South African contractor quipped, not too inaccurately, that "Afrikaans is the third-most-spoken language in Iraq." Bertus is typical of this crowd. A thickly muscled ex-cop with 18 years of experience, he served in South Africa's notorious Koevoet battalion, which fought a proxy war against the Marxist government of Angola. He's now employed by Reed, a company established in 2003 by the former South African military attache in Washington, D.C. Many of Bertus' Afrikaner cohorts had been discharged after "the changes" in South Africa, he says, and few had been able to find work. Bertus had been a cattle farmer, but working in Iraq is far more profitable, well worth defying the South African government, which recently passed a law prohibiting its citizens from working in Iraq, or as mercenaries anywhere. Fearing arrest, most of the South Africans I met in Iraq didn't expect to return home; they'd earn enough to bring their families abroad. "We weren't given no futures," one says, explaining that he left the South African army after being told, "You, as a white major, have no future in this regime."

The South Africans are popular with U.S. companies, and even the U.S. government, which uses them as bodyguards for high-ranking officials. "If losses are taken, it's not soldiers killed," Bertus says, explaining the appeal of using contractors, "and if civilians are killed in the crossfire, then they can't blame it on the Army"—though he claims that is less likely to happen when the contractors are former cops like himself. "If you are a soldier it's straightforward: Wipe out everything in front of you. Police must use discretion, and policemen are better drivers." I met him while he was temporarily posted in comparatively peaceful Kurdistan, and he was getting bored. "I miss the action," he said. "I miss Baghdad, the sweat on my hands."

Quite a few South African bodyguards work for DynCorp, a Falls Church, Virginia-based company that has drug interdiction contracts in Colombia and Afghanistan and works in Iraq to protect U.S. officials and train Iraqi police. (DynCorp has had its share of scandals, including, during one excursion, providing cnn's Tucker Carlson an AK-47 and commandeering an Iraqi gas station. In February, federal auditors cited DynCorp for wasting millions on projects, including building an unapproved, Olympic-sized swimming pool at the behest of Iraqi police officials.) DynCorp has taken over the Baghdad Hotel on Saadun Street, which comes under regular attack despite the concrete blast walls that ring it. Iraqis protect the perimeter while inside the bodyguards are Americans, South Africans, and, chatting in Portuguese, former Angolans who'd fought alongside the South Africans and been granted citizenship by the apartheid government but who no longer feel welcome in South Africa either.

Among the DynCorp contractors the South Africans have protected are the 500 American police officers brought in to train, mentor, and advise the Iraqi police. "Risk is the single biggest challenge here," explains Chief Mike Heidingsfield, who runs the training program. I met him in November 2005; in the four months prior to my visit, two U.S. police officers and three members of their security details had been killed. Heidingsfield shows would-be American recruits a PowerPoint with pictures of devastation and death, so they will have no illusions about what to expect. Most who take the job, he acknowledges, come from low-paid police forces in Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Traditional police-training missions include the introduction of democratic principles, notes Heidingsfield. "But the insurgency is so strong, the police became a counterinsurgency force. The challenge is to not end up with a paramilitary unit that doesn't respect democratic principles." He admits the task is very difficult. Under Saddam, he says, the police were "a system to shake down the local population for bribes. We had to change the cultural attitude of what police duty is."

Heidingsfield's boss, lawyer and former cop Patrick Mahaney, served in Kosovo on a similar training mission. There Mahaney had executive authority, meaning he could arrest people. But in Iraq, and in a similar program in Afghanistan, he and his men are just advisers. Mahaney brought 22 years of policing experience with him, preceded by military service. He's studying Spanish, hoping to be a part of the DynCorp mission he is sure will soon head to post-Castro Cuba. "I can't wait," he says.

Not all private security companies are foreign-owned. The psc employing Pirate and Steeler is owned by a Kurdish peshmerga (literally, "facing death") commander. Most of his employees are also Iraqi Kurds, but he also employs a dozen former Lebanese militiamen, 10 Americans, and 1 Canadian.

On one trip to Iraq, two of those Americans, Wade and Tom, both thirtysomething former Washington state National Guardsmen who've done tours of duty in Iraq, offer to pick me up from the Baghdad airport. Wade's a Captain America type; he trains every night in the makeshift, rusty gym he and Tom have set up outside their house in the Green Zone. Tom has brown hair, a slight belly, and always wears a smirk. A weapons-repair expert and a plumber in civilian life, he can fix anything.

As is standard when landing in Baghdad, my plane had taken a sudden, steep plunge at 10,000 feet to avoid any surface-to-air missiles. More dangerous than the landing is Route Irish, the five-mile road from the airport to the Green Zone. Route Irish is lined with reeds and bushes providing excellent cover for attackers. Some weeks feature daily suicide-car explosions, and traffic often stands for hours at a time, thanks to firefights, car bombs, protests, American roadblocks, and general chaos. Iraqi police and soldiers, many trained by DynCorp and other contractors in "force protection" tactics, blaze through such jams in pickup trucks, aiming their weapons menacingly at anyone who comes too close, firing into the air, and sometimes at cars that linger in their path too long.

Wade drove a dusty, old, black Mercedes, followed by a "chase car" with a crew of Kurds whose job was to provide extra firepower. We started hearing gunfire as soon as the car left the airport; any car that came too close was waved off by the gun-brandishing Kurds. Very few Westerners drive themselves in Baghdad, and as we sat in traffic, stunned Iraqis glanced at Wade again and again.

As it turned out, the Kurdish psc Wade and Tom work for had been contracted to guard the same giant supply depot that JB once protected. There, Pirate and a lanky, tattooed ex-Louisiana cop took new Kurdish hires to the depot's gun range and, much to the chagrin of the former peshmerga fighters, gave them basic weapons training, teaching proper posture and breathing, painstakingly demonstrating how to squeeze the butt into the shoulder and place a cheek against the weapon. The lesson then progressed to reloading magazines quickly and with one hand, and then to shooting while moving as a team. These skills are essential for the Kurds, who face insurgents and highway robbers who stage complex ambushes—a roadside bomb followed by grenade attacks and machine-gun fire to take out the lead and rear vehicles and pin down an entire convoy.

The new hires are led by a handsome young Kurd named Soran who joined the peshmerga at 13, occasionally fighting alongside U.S. Special Forces. Soran's American boss only gives his call sign, Buddha. He is the ultimate commander of what he describes as a light battalion of 425 peshmerga and three Western supervisors. Grizzled and cigar smoking, Buddha spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a captain from the elite counterterror Delta Force. He'd subsequently engaged in private operations on behalf of the U.S. government for two decades, including Oliver North's Iran-Contra operations; later, he headed the private security detail of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. During the coup that forced Aristide from power, he claims, he was called to the U.S. Embassy and told that if he continued to protect Aristide, his Army pension would be revoked. Buddha still has a home in Haiti, and a Haitian wife. Of the Kurds he trained, he jokes: "They have to understand what the bump on the end of the barrel is for." The Kurds make an average of $300 to $500 a month. On average, American security contractors make between $9,000 and $12,000 a month. Wade, for example, earns $13,000 a month; his National Guard officer's pay had been $5,000 a month.

The supply depot typically receives 30 to 40 rounds of mortar fire a week, but that's recently tapered off, Buddha explains. He adds that the range of the mortars is 1,300 meters, which "happens to be the range of my sniper rifle," and smiles as he tells me he'd "successfully engaged" insurgents attacking the compound. He's been known to don the traditional dishdasha that locals wear, and the shemagh, or head scarf, to conduct reconnaissance.

Buddha is not optimistic about the war his Army friends are fighting. "I've never seen a war of occupation that worked," he says. "This is an unconventional war being fought by a conventional army." And like other contractors, he says the war depends on the likes of him: "Without us, they could crunch numbers and lie to the public all day, but they wouldn't be able to do it." Long after the American military withdraws, security contractors will remain: "The Iraqi government will have to come to the private security industry because the Iraqi government will face the same problems the U.S. government faces."

Since the invasion, various events have called into question the use of private security contractors: the Blackwater incident, Titan Corp.'s involvement in the Abu Ghraib scandal, each new report of cost overruns or of a particularly unsavory Serbian, South African, or Chilean found to be taking extrajudicial measures. But the truth is more complicated: Because there's also the fact that we decided to invade, and to do so with an inadequate force, and to cover our asses by deploying a shadow force. One for which there will never be flag-draped coffins, or a monument on the Mall. In World War II and Vietnam, the cooks, the truck drivers, the ditch diggers, and, yes, the bodyguards, were all military personnel. Now, with little regard for the consequences, we outsource such dirty work to those who will, for whatever reason, decide the rewards are worth the risk.

A few days after I left, Wade, who has a master's degree in geology but came to Iraq to support his wife and two children, emailed me with an update. Tom had been hit by an ied while driving the same armored black Mercedes I'd ridden around in. "The armor did its job," Wade reported. Tom had emerged unscathed, if shaken. Wade would tell such stories to his wife, even though they worried her sick. (Security contractors reportedly have astronomical divorce rates.) At the end of Wade's last trip stateside, his then seven-year-old son accompanied him to the airport. "He cried for five minutes," Wade said. "I almost changed my mind about going."

A few months later, after three years in Iraq, he did. "My absence was beginning to severely affect my son and my teenage daughter, and my marriage was suffering pretty significantly. It wasn't worth it anymore, no matter how much money I could make. My wife and I had some pretty rough times in the months after I returned, but we're doing very well. Life is great. I have never looked back."