Mercenaries make big money in Iraq but, says Sam Kiley, the ‘outsourcing’ of security work is adding to the chaos in the country
They bustle through the Palestine Hotel lobby in central Baghdad clanking with military hardware. They have a very special look. The head is crew-cut, the sunglasses wraparound. A Heckler and Koch 9mm submachine gun is de rigueur — strapped across a black Kevlar bullet-proof vest, barely hidden by a photographer’s jacket. Pockets are stuffed with radios, a hand-held global positioning system, medical trauma packs.
From the webbing belt holding up ‘rip-proof’ combat trousers, a Gerber multi-tool dangles beside a Leatherman knife. Another gun, usually a Glock 9mm, is held in a black nylon holster halfway down one thigh. Spare clips of ‘ammo’ and a commando dagger are sheathed on the other leg. The knees are reinforced with strap-on rubber pads. Asked about their backgrounds the Brits among them smile enigmatically and ‘let slip’ they’ve spent some time ‘in Hereford’ — a weak code for service with 22 Special Air Service. The Yanks favour a 1,000 mile stare and ‘I’ve been around a bit since Mogadishu’. They sneak looks at each other’s hardware and exchange knowing nods. It’s all a bit Village People.
My friend ‘Rob’, a genuine former sergeant major from the SAS, is unarmed and looks like an off-the-peg BBC reporter, blue shirt, chinos. He is disgusted. ‘Look at those pooftas,’ he splutters. ‘They might as well wear a fucking sign saying shoot me!’
Since then several mercenaries, or members of private military companies (PMCs), have indeed been shot. Two were killed near Kirkuk. Four were butchered on the street in Fallujah. Mike Bloss, a Brit, died bravely fighting off guerrillas and saved three engineers fixing power lines in Hit, not far from Fallujah. They are among an army of an estimated 14,000 mercenaries operating in Iraq, forming the third largest foreign military force in the country, after the Americans and the British.
Drawn to Mesopotamia by promises of daily salaries of £300–£500, the modern dogs of war have found the pickings rich. But how much use they are, or good they do, is another matter. These days the ubiquity of heavily armed foreigners partly explains why so many people are being kidnapped in Iraq. The mercenaries are unaccountable, often incompetent, and deeply unpopular. Come to think of it, so are the people in the Pentagon who hired them.
Mercenaries guard civilian workers and journalists. They train Iraq’s army and police. They are securing its national assets, like the oil pipelines. In fact, foreign soldiers are doing what the American occupiers should have asked the conquered Iraqi army to do. The difference is that the mercenaries are probably the most hated and humiliating aspect of the disastrous occupation of Iraq — and they’re not much good either.
Bloss was working for an outfit called Custer Battles, which has picked up close to £40 million in security contracts from the US government and private firms. It is run by Mike Battles, who is no veteran of great experience — he’s apparently only 33. Bloss had just three years’ service behind him in the British Parachute Regiment. Other so-called ‘security advisers’ have even less military experience and little understanding of how to stay alive in Iraq. Much of their training seems to have been gleaned from sweaty nights spent with a dog-eared copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine.
‘If you added up all the “ex-SAS men” now serving in Iraq, they’d fill a brigade. It’s ridiculous, the place is full of Walter Mittys with guns zooming around like Rambo asking for trouble,’ Rob complained. In short, Iraq now attracts as many professionals as it does fantasists.
The Pentagon has splashed out at least £150 million on private security contracts in Iraq. British PMCs, who have the best reputation, are expected to earn about £1 billion from their Iraq operations this year, up from an industry average of £200 million over the last few years. This is a disaster for Britain’s armed forces because the genuine SAS soldier commands a premium fee in the open market.
There are only about 300 men in the SAS altogether. In the last year, insiders tell me, about 40 men have left ‘The Regiment’, where they could expect to make about £250 a week fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, for cushy gigs paying up to £1,000 a day. The SAS is so worried about the haemorrhage of experienced soldiers that it recently sent a secret memo to former members of the regiment asking them stop recruiting their former comrades on to the mercenary circuit. The Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, is also facing a skills shortage. Ex-spooks are filling the ranks of ‘security analysis’ firms, while it has now found itself so short-staffed that it has begun to hire freelance special forces agents for the sharp end of its operations. Market forces mean that, no matter how patriotic the agent might be, he can expect to take home at least £500 a day.
But this boom in mercenary work, or ‘outsourcing’ as the Pentagon would probably prefer to call it, will inevitably add to the chaos in Iraq. Erinys has a $100 million contract to hire 14,000 Iraqi and foreign soldiers to guard the country’s oil fields. The company was founded by Alastair Morrisson, a former officer in the SAS. He won an Iron Cross for leading German commandos on an assault on the Lufthansa airliner hijacked to Mogadishu in 1977, fought in Aden and all over the Arab world. He’s unlikely to make a hash of things. But no one knows what the rules of engagement of his men really are. Some of his foreign soldiers are known to be South Africans with a chequered history in apartheid’s death squads. There is no legal system functioning in Iraq if foreign mercenaries end up killing people — in fact they are officially beyond the law, according to the rules set by the US viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer. (Perhaps because mercenaries are also in charge of protecting his skin.)
Dyncorp International is also a mercenary blue-chip outfit. It has a $50 million contract from the State Department to train Iraq’s police forces. But it also needs extra firepower to protect its own employees. Dyncorp men have created their own fortresses in Baghdad, erecting barriers on residential streets. Like almost any of the foreign hired guns in Iraq, they stop and search Iraqis whenever they want, shove to the front of all traffic queues and lines at petrol stations, and are quickly recruiting their own private army. Most dangerously of all, Dyncorp has a militia of Kurds from the north of Iraq, working in the Arab-dominated Iraqi capital. The Kurds might be splendid fighters, and loyal, but they’re Kurds. Given that Saddam Hussein murdered some 185,000 of them in the late 1980s as part of his campaign to Arabise the north, the Kurds have some ‘issues’ with the Arab majority.
For all their massive pay packets, the mercenaries have shown very little intelligence in the way they conduct themselves. Dyncorp staffers can be spotted miles off because they love to race about at over 100mph in vast jeeps — which no Iraqis can afford. The four men from the US outfit Blackwater Security Consulting who were torn apart in Fallujah were, allegedly, escorting a food convoy. How dumb is that? Did no one tell them that Americans are hated in Fallujah, the scene of bloody clashes on a daily basis? If there was a need to guard food convoys, why didn’t the army do it? If the men were actually working for the CIA, which has outsourced most of its combat-type operations, what the hell were two jeep-loads of armed men doing tooling around the front line? Either way it was stupid for the mercenaries to be where they were. Fallujah is not a new problem — readers of The Spectator might recall very early warnings about the area. I was kidnapped and taken away to be shot close to the town exactly a year ago.
‘Things have never looked better for the proper special forces people on the circuit. They all know who they are and they work together. Many of them are either running the companies or the training teams. But the clever ones aren’t even working in Iraq,’ an SAS veteran of Sierra Leone, the Gulf war and Afghanistan, told me. ‘Why go and risk getting your arse shot off when there is loads of work in the rest of the world? Let the nutters have Iraq.’
Sam Kiley is a reporter for Channel 4’s Dispatches.