Disposable army: private security in Iraq

Private security is big business in Iraq, but has this vital industry shaken off the controversies of the past and is it ready for the challenges of the future?
Aegis armourer Alan Brewis. All weapons are registered with the government.
Aegis armourer Alan Brewis. All weapons are registered with the government.

A child selling chewing gum taps on the driver's window. An Iraqi soldier, cradling his M16 rifle, stands in the shade of a tree, studying the stationary cars and minibuses as policemen do their best to untangle the traffic.

If it makes them nervous to be sat gridlocked on this Baghdad roundabout, their vehicle labelled front, back and sides with ministry of interior decals advertising them in large type as number 35 of the licensed private security companies operating in Iraq, Daz Lane and his Iraqi driver don't show it.

Lane, a 40-year-old veteran of the British army's Parachute Regiment, is a personal protection officer with Aegis Defence Services, one of the largest private security companies operating in Iraq. He's in the client car; immediately ahead and behind are the two other armoured Land Cruisers.

"Hostile action is an unlikely event," says Lane, as he scans the scene around him. His Swiss-made Sig 552 Commando carbine and the driver's AK-derived Zastava M21 assault rifle are out of sight but within easy reach in the front footwells.

Nevertheless, "if there is any type of hostile action directed at the team, then I will ask you to get down, remain calm and obey any instructions that either myself or any other team member gives you."

It wasn't long ago, he says, that this situation "would have bothered many people; most high-profile call signs would not like to be static in traffic like this".

Three Iraqi army Humvees push into the roundabout from the right, clearing a path, and the traffic starts to move again.

"Caution right," the Aegis team leader calls over the radio as his vehicle leads the convoy into the busy Karradah shopping district. As one, the three Land Cruisers, keeping a pronounced distance from each other, drift to the left to give a wide berth to a parked car.

Everyone is alert for potential danger. Parked vans; yellow taxis; cardboard boxes stacked to the edge of the pavement outside a row of shops selling fans and generators; piles of rubbish; debris; cans of fuel being sold by the side of the road ... to the untrained eye, everything looks like a threat, a potential improvised explosive device (IED), but "I think you'd go quietly mad if you thought that", says Lane.

And yet sometimes the perceived threats are dangerously real. Just under two weeks later, a bomb in a minibus parked outside a restaurant in this very same district kills three passersby and wounds a further nine. A week after that, on July 24, another bomb explodes here, wounding two policemen; later that same day gunmen in a passing car shoot and kill a traffic policeman.

The level of violence in Baghdad is nothing like it was, but it is still dangerously easy to find oneself in the wrong place at the wrong time - and, as the US military presence ebbs away, it is the private security contractors, foreign and Iraqi alike, who remain on the front line of the nation's reconstruction effort.

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On March 19 last year, a Friday, members of the US Army Corps of Engineers gathered at their base in Baghdad to hold a memorial service for Robbie Napier, a 36-year-old British Aegis employee. Nine days earlier, Napier had been leading a security detachment escorting engineers to a reconstruction project when his Land Cruiser was hit by a roadside bomb.

Normally, such deaths pass unmourned by anyone but colleagues and family, but Napier's was memorialised in a blog by a former US naval officer, working with the engineers in Baghdad as a civilian.

These days, wrote Skip Rohde, "I don't recall seeing anything more than a brief one-liner about any of our forces being hurt or killed ... and especially never anything about contractors."

A week before Napier's death, he noted, a member of a different security team had been killed by a sniper; a few days later, "two more lost their legs to another roadside bomb". Then, on July 19, 2010, Nicholas Crouch, another Briton working for Aegis, died when a suicide bomber drove into his vehicle.

Crouch, 29, had been escorting US army engineers to the site of a hospital they were building in Mosul.

Sceptics, wrote Rohde, would say people like him and Napier were in Iraq "for the money or the adrenaline rush ... but I think most of us are here primarily for other reasons: the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than ourselves, to participate in something vitally important".

Napier had been "helping this place get back on its feet ... tomorrow morning, Robbie's teammates will go back out again," wrote Rohde. "The mission goes on."

The mission has been going on for private security contractors for the past eight years, during which time hundreds of them - expatriates and Iraqi nationals - have been killed. According to Disposable Army, an investigation published in September by ProPublica, the number of contractor deaths in Iraq during the first six months of 2010 alone exceeded 250, marginally outweighing military losses for the first time.

But eulogies such as that posted by Skip Rohde are rare. More typical is the view promulgated in the Ken Loach film Route Irish, released in the UK in March but premiered at Cannes on May 20 last year - by chance just two months after Napier's death, and two months before Crouch's.

The film is a political polemic posing as a thriller, in which the security industry serves as a proxy for the director's real target, the war in Iraq, and contractors are portrayed as trigger-happy mercenaries led by unscrupulous war profiteers. It's a widespread perception and, says Harry Bucknall, Aegis's country manager in Iraq, "one that troubles me, in the sense that it's not true".

There have, of course, been a number of high-profile incidents in which Iraqi civilians have been killed or wounded by security contractors. The worst occurred on September 16, 2007, when guards working for Blackwater Worldwide, trying to clear a path through traffic for members of the US State Department, shot and killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad's Nissour Square.

The case remains unresolved. In 2009, a US court dismissed charges of voluntary manslaughter against five of the men, but in April a federal appeal court granted a justice department application for a re-examination of the evidence against four of them.

Aegis, too, has had its share of controversy. In November 2005, a disgruntled former employee posted a video on the internet that appeared to show its personnel shooting randomly at civilian cars.

The four separate clips, captured by the vehicles' on-board video cameras and spliced together to the soundtrack of the Elvis Presley song Mystery Train, all seemed to have been filmed along Route Irish, the 12-kilometre road between Baghdad airport and the city's International Zone, which had earned a reputation as the most dangerous road in the world.

In the event, Aegis was cleared of any wrongdoing by the US army's criminal investigation division in June 2006.

The clips, says Bucknall, filmed at a time when there had been 150 attacks in four months along Route Irish, were taken out of context and "didn't show what happened before or after. It was that footage that was shared with the US government and which allowed them to say this was appropriate in terms of standard operating procedures and rules on the use of force."

The manipulated footage concealed another side to the story, the narrative of the experience of the vast majority of the private security companies working in Iraq - a tale of professionalism and sacrifice without which the rebuilding of Iraq would be little more than a hollow hope.

As the withdrawal of US troops approaches and the US Department of Defense (DoD) contracts wind down, Aegis and other contractors are developing their work for commercial clients, but Washington will continue to rely on the private sector in Iraq for some time. Although the number of private contractors working for the DoD is down from a high of 15,200 in 2009 to about 9,200 this March, the state department is expected to hire thousands of additional personnel to help it cope with the responsibilities it will take over from the DoD this October.

There is, says Bucknall, speaking in Aegis's headquarters on 15th Street in the International Zone, a simple reality. Iraq needs foreign help and investment and "those coming in to do business, whether it's commercial business or government business, require security".

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One of Bucknall's teams is out on Route Irish, on their way to the airport to pick up a group of oil-company executives flying in for an urgent meeting at the Iraqi oil ministry. "It has become inordinately expensive for government and other organisations to provide their own security," says Bucknall, "so there is a very large market for contractors, and that might be cooks, cleaners or static and mobile security. It is an entirely legitimate business; of course, I'm aware that it has a reputation and that's a reputation we strive to counteract."

Today, all security companies must be licensed by the Iraqi government - Aegis was one of the first to receive accreditation from the ministry of interior - while the immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law bestowed upon contractors by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004 was ended in January 2009.

And the industry is trying to put its own house in order. Last November, Aegis was one of the founding signatories to the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers. By April this year, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, 94 companies had signed the code, designed "to limit the use of force, respect human rights of local nationals, vet and train personnel, and report any violations".

In some quarters, however, perceptions about the industry appear set in stone; Aegis, for one, bridles at the title of the UN's "Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination".

 

"We are very happy to work with them," says Bucknall, who met members of the working group during a visit to Baghdad last month, "but we did ask them to change the name." The UN declined.

At the end of its fact-finding visit to Baghdad, the working group concluded, unsurprisingly, that the Iraqi government "should continue to regulate and monitor the activities of private military and security companies ... high-profile incidents involving such companies, such as the Nissour Square shooting in 2007 [had] focused attention on the negative impact of their activities on Iraqis' human rights".

Nissour Square, Bucknall says, "made the industry look at itself and say we must hold ourselves to the very highest standards, because we are not like certain companies, and it is very important to demonstrate that we come under host-nation law, that we have our internal procedures and ethics policies, to delineate [the majority of] private security companies from companies of the cowboys-and-Indians type."

Aegis, founded in 2002 by four Britons, including Tim Spicer, a former lieutenant-colonel in the British army, is today not only one of the biggest security firms operating in Iraq, but also one of the best-connected in the UK.

Its chief executive is Major General Graham Binns, the former commander of British forces in Iraq, who in 2007 oversaw the transfer of control of Basra province to the Iraqis, and its non-executive chairman is Nicholas Soames, a Conservative MP and former minister of state for the armed forces and shadow secretary of state for defence. Directors include James Ellery, a former British army brigadier and head of the UN mission to Sudan, and Baron Boateng, a former Labour MP, Britain's first black cabinet minister and a former British high commissioner to South Africa.

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A 2009 report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) noted that, between May 2004 and November 2008, Aegis, "a major provider of security services to the Department of Defense in Iraq", had won seven contracts, worth a total of $624.4 million (Dh2.3 billion), with the vast majority of the money being spent on protecting units of the US Army Corps of Engineers carrying out reconstruction projects.

By April 7 this year, SIGIR noted in a follow-up report, the firm's income from the US government since 2004 had passed the $1bn mark, although such success has not come without a cost. SIGIR also noted that 80 of the 380 serious incidents reported by all security contractors in the nine months since February 2008 had befallen Aegis personnel.

And in October 2010, The New York Times, sifting through the latest tranche of WikiLeaks material, discovered that in the six years covered by the reports at least 175 private security contractors had been killed - and that the worst year appeared to have been 2006, when "Aegis, a British security company, had the most workers reported killed, more than 30".

The fact that "most of those were Iraqi drivers, guards and other employees", was the grim downside to the Iraqisation employment policy pursued by Aegis.

At the height of its US government contracts, Aegis had about 1,400 personnel in Iraq. Today, more than 60 per cent of the 750 employees working in the country are Iraqis; the majority of the rest are former British servicemen.

"We are very heavily Iraqi and we are growing our numbers because it's the right thing to do and certainly the government of Iraq quite rightly wants employment opportunities for Iraqi people," Bucknall says.

"Our wage bill for Iraqis is about $10 million a year; that's a significant investment into the economy and, in terms of seeing a long-term future for security companies in Iraq, that's very much the way ahead."

One such Iraqi is 43-year-old Imad, who graduated from Baghdad University as a psychologist in 1991 but, "because I am Shia and I not belong to Baath party", says he could only scrape a living, first by making shoes and later by trading.

After the invasion in 2003 - "because I hate Saddam, I was one of the millions who was very happy for the coalition forces to invade" - his 18 months of national service in the Iraqi army paid off when he was offered a job as a translator-bodyguard for a British engineer working for Motorola. Overnight, his life changed.

"My wife she is engineer," he recalls. "She takes [home] four dollars a month. Motorola pay me $500 a month."

He joined Aegis in 2006 and says he loves his work, though he does not talk about it in his mixed Shiite-Sunni neighbourhood. "No one can say 'Yes, I'm working for a foreign company or American troops'."

Many times a day, he speaks to Iraqi police and army guards at checkpoints. How they treat him, he says, depends on the individual; some still have bad feelings about the security companiesafter what happened in Nissour Square. "We explain for them, so some of them start to know our company is come to build Iraq, not to invade, and we are different to the military and Blackwater."

Working with Aegis and the US Army Corps of Engineers, he says, has been "brilliant. I was with them on the ground and speak with the people about what they need and we build ..." - he corrects himself, with a smile - "they build; many water treatment plants, schools and hospitals ... I feel very happy and thankful for that."

He says he has lost four or five friends from the neighbourhood, including cousins, and people he worked with in Aegis. Asked how he deals with such deaths, he shakes his head sadly. "Because I am Iraqi it is very, very normal to see people dying."

Imad has five children, three girls and two boys aged from seven to 16, and another manifestation of Iraq's "normality" affects him more viscerally.

"I have small yard in my home, and when they are playing one of them say 'OK, let's play ... we are walking down the street and there is a car bomb'. 'Boom,' one of them says and they lay down on the ground and one says 'Oh, my leg' and another says 'Oh, my hand'."

He shakes his head sadly.

"Can you imagine that? They are kids. They should be watching Tom and Jerry."

While Imad might be expected to speak highly of the work his company does, he isn't the only Iraqi to have done so. In June last year the US Commission on Wartime Contracting was presented with a testimonial by the Iraqi ambassador to the United States.

"I have followed with interest and satisfaction [their] activities in Iraq," wrote Samir Sumaidaie, a former minister of the interior who in 2006 was appointed as Iraq's first ambassador to the US in 15 years.

Iraqis, he added, had "suffered at the hands of some private security firms. Aegis seems to not only avoid irritating and endangering local citizens but go out of their way to help them."

Part of that has been the work of the Aegis Foundation, which has funded a series of projects of which, says Bucknall, "we are immensely proud".

These have ranged from building a football pitch and gifting shoes to an orphanage to providing generators and inoculating 30,000 people against cholera and typhoid, to prevent further deaths before a new multimillion-dollar water purification plant being built in Nasiriyah by the Corps of Engineers could be brought on line.

There is, of course, self-interest in such largesse - "The single best way of securing your security and well-being is by having a good relationship with the local people," Bucknall says.

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Back on Route Irish, the two security teams are heading back into town from the airport with the oil executives. The clients are issued with helmets and body armour and the six bullet-proof Land Cruisers are tracked by satellite.

Yet the ride down the highway, says Bucknall, is very different today to how it would have been a few years ago.

At the height of its notoriety, Route Irish earned its reputation as "the deadliest road in Iraq", as it was termed in a US army report in 2005. Between November 1, 2003 and March 12, 2004, a US operational postmortem noted, there had been 135 "hostile incidents" along the road, ranging from nine "complex attacks" and 14 vehicle-borne explosive devices to three hand-grenades, 14 rocket-propelled grenades and 19 roadside explosions - or "11.25 attacks per mile ... a minimum of one attack per day since November".

Today, thanks largely to the efforts of the US-trained Iraqi security forces, present throughout Baghdad in overwhelming numbers, "it has transformed from being perhaps the most dangerous pieces of tarmac in the world to one of the safest," says Bucknall.

As a result, gone are the days when security companies cut through traffic. "We drive very slowly, we mix with the traffic; there's a share-the-road policy. You just can't drive like that any more. You wouldn't get away with it and the threat doesn't warrant it."

In short, he says, "a drive down Irish from 2006 to 2011 is a fantastic snapshot of how life has changed in Iraq and how private security companies have adapted and evolved".

Gone are the "Danger - stay back" signs on the backs of the Land Cruisers. Also gone are the sliding roof hatches, manned by rear-gunners. Now, weapons are kept out of sight and spare magazines carried in bags rather than worn on chest rigs.

Of course, there's nothing normal about Route Irish today - the checkpoints, sniffer dogs, machine-gun posts, tanks and armoured cars attest to the very real threats that remain - but the much-reduced number of attacks of any kind, along with the road improvements and planting of palm trees along the once bomb-pocked central median, serve as a symbol of how Iraq as a whole is edging towards a normality of a kind.

And yet, in a moment of violence, the promise of normality can be broken.

In the week before Aegis's oil executives arrived, there were three attacks on private security vehicles in Baghdad, one of which killed a US academic working with the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education to introduce a business curriculum to Baghdad University. On Monday July 4, the day the oil men flew out, security forces in and around Baghdad were targeted by a series of bombs that claimed ten lives, including those of three policemen in Baghdad's Mansour district, which extends parallel to Route Irish from the airport to the international zone.

Jonathan Gornall is a senior features writer for The National.

Published: August 5, 2011 04:00 AM

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