Thu, Dec 16, 2004 - Page 7 News List

US firm's pursuit of Colombians for Iraq jobs causes concern

AP , BOGOTA, COLOMBIA

With a whiff of the clandestine, the classified ad posted in a leading Colombian newspaper by "an American company" seeks out people with military experience. It's a common request in Latin America -- a region long on experience with bloody conflict.

But for some analysts, the ad in El Tiempo seeking contractors to work in Iraq is particularly troubling in Colombia, where it may be construed as the ideal call-to-arms for the thousands of battle-hardened paramilitary fighters searching for jobs now that their factions are being disbanded.

`Ex-terrorists'

"Hopefully, being chainsaw-wielding paramilitaries would prevent them from being recruited," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert with the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

"But unless these companies are carefully screening people, they'll be on their way to Baghdad ... ex-terrorists guarding against terrorists," he said.

The right-wing paramilitary gunmen, many of whom are former Colombian army soldiers, have waged a merciless war against leftist rebels for the past two decades.

It is a conflict defined by massacres and the assassinations of suspected collaborators -- sometimes even with a chain saw. Funding for their cause came from drug running, and the US government has branded the groups -- including the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC -- as terrorist organizations.

El Tiempo said Tuesday the classified ad it carried is aimed at recruiting former Colombian military personnel and police to work in Iraq as bodyguards and to protect oil pipelines.

It said the jobs pay 18 million pesos (US$7,700) per month, a salary surpassing that of President Alvaro Uribe's Cabinet ministers.

High Salaries

While there is no indication that paramilitaries gunmen have responded to the ads, which first appeared in October, the concern is that the promise of another conflict for another dollar will be incentive enough for former fighters of outlawed groups, some of whom could face prosecution for crimes in Colombia.

The ad doesn't mince words:

"An American company requires," the ad begins in boldface, "To work abroad, Officers and enlisted men of the army, marines and air force."

The company invites those who are trained for combat, and no older than 37, to send their applications to a Bogota post office box. The unnamed company offers a visa for those who are accepted, indicating it is a US government contractor since companies with no government links would be unable to promise visas.

The US Embassy in Bogota had no immediate comment on the ad.

El Tiempo said 16 former Colombian military personnel have been recruited and left for Iraq last Friday. It also said more were set to go next month.

Colombian Defense Minister Jorge Uribe said it would be a mistake to call them mercenaries.

"This is a recruitment by security firms that are looking for experts," Uribe said in an interview with The W, a radio station, on Tuesday. "They're looking for people who have experience in security."

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