Mon, Jul 05, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Foreign mercenaries find risky work abounds in Iraq

AFP , Baghdad

Heavily armed foreign security contractors immune from Iraqi law are likely to increase their presence in the country as attacks continue and international forces begin to scale back.

The contractors, already estimated to number about 5,000, are still pouring into the country mainly to guard key personnel and reconstruction projects that are expected to accelerate under the caretaker government.

"The security business now in July is going to pick up," said the owner of one of at least 30 companies operating in the country.

The contractors, most of them ex-military or former police and many of whom have also worked as bodyguards in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Israel, say the industry is enjoying a boom.

"The industry has never seen anything like this before in magnitude," said a company official who has worked in the sector for nine years. "The number of available companies to get a job with is astronomical. I think the security game is here to stay for a long time."

But the highly visible contractors are also extremely controversial, with their immunity from Iraqi law confirmed when the US-led coalition handed power to an interim government last Monday.

The immunity can be waived by their home country, which which the contractors admit is unlikely.

A government spokesman has said the topic has been a source of debate within the new administration, which opposes immunity.

But the contractors say it would be impossible to conduct their high-risk operations if they also felt threatened by prosecution.

"If we didn't have immunity I would pull my company out," said the company owner, speaking on condition of anonymity. "You cannot work in this environment where the enemy has the right to use any weapon and you haven't got right of protection within the framework of a normal law."

They say reconstruction efforts demand their immunity.

"The reason it's happened is because if they want all these companies to work here and do reconstruction, they have to secure them," the businessman said. "If it (the war and occupation) had been done by the US military and coalition forces with the right numbers, there would be a lot less private security."

The guards, viewed as part of the occupying forces by many Iraqis, have found themselves increasingly targeted by the occupation's opponents.

Convoys come under almost daily attack and security guards are killed regularly. Four employees of the Blackwater firm were murdered and dismembered in late March, sparking a month-long military siege of Fallujah.

"The threat level is immense trying to work here -- it's higher than anywhere else in the world," the company owner said. "One of my teams has had six contacts -- been shot at, ambushed. Front car shot up, second car tires shot up. Another time they were approached from the back and shot up."

The firms are in no doubt about the sophistication of their enemies.

"Surveillance, tracking, radio surveillance -- they can do all that stuff," the company owner said. "As we can, they can. They have sophisticated stuff and there's more and more surveillance being done."

One security guard, who has been working in the industry for 18 years "on and off," said the toughest part of working in Iraq was the random nature of the violence.

"They can wake up in the morning and invent something to disrupt our day. We just have to react to what they invent," he said. "We have to be lucky every day. They only have to be lucky on the day they choose to do an operation."

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