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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

"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 guards...in 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.

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