Private military companies in Iraq: profiting from colonialism

By James Conachy
3 May 2004

Operating behind a veil of state and corporate secrecy, dozens of private security firms with intimate connections to the American political establishment are playing a crucial role in the US occupation of Iraq. The wholesale contracting of military work to these companies is one of the most outrageous forms of war profiteering taking place under the auspices of the Bush administration. Modern-day mercenaries are amassing vast fortunes assisting the US ruling elite to establish a puppet regime in Iraq, repress the Iraqi people and plunder the country’s resources.

Security contractors, without uniforms or standardised identification, driving through the streets in unmarked vehicles, manning roadblocks or stalking outside buildings with machine-guns, have become a ubiquitous and offensive symbol of the US occupation.

Private military companies (PMCs) are contributing as much as 20 percent of the total US-led occupation force. At least 35 PMCs have contracts in Iraq, employing at least 5,000 heavily-armed foreign mercenaries and over 20,000 Iraqis to carry out explicitly military work in some of the most dangerous areas of the country. At least another 10,000 to 15,000 contractors from every corner of the globe are performing vital military logistical support roles such as driving, maintenance, training, communications and intelligence-gathering.

Among those who were torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were contractors employed as interrogators and translators. One is accused of raping a young man. He has not been charged however. The mercenaries in Iraq have complete immunity from Iraqi law under an edict issued by the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

The market for these corporate guns-for-hire has been created by the unprecedented military activity undertaken by the US government over the past 13 years, and especially since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The American armed forces now have 350,000 personnel deployed overseas, with a presence in at least 130 countries and permanent bases in 63. Iraq accounts for 135,000 of these troops.

With the US military stretched to the limit, PMCs are being used by the Bush administration to provide the needed military and logistical means to conduct colonial interventions and wars of aggression. Without the services of mercenaries, the US government would be compelled to increase the size of the US military or to consider reviving the military draft.

An article on the activities of PMCs in Iraq in the April 19 Washington Post commented: “Far more than in any other conflict in United States history, the Pentagon is relying on private security companies to perform crucial jobs once entrusted to the military. In addition to guarding innumerable reconstruction projects, private companies are being asked to provide security for the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer III, and other senior officials; to escort supply convoys through hostile territory; and to defend key locations, including 15 regional authority headquarters and even the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad, the centre of American power in Iraq.”

Vast profits are being made. While few details have been released about the amounts involved in specific contracts, it is estimated that of the $18.6 billion allocated by the Bush administration for Iraq’s “reconstruction,” at least 25 percent will be used to pay security companies. David Claridge, a director of a London security firm, has estimated that Iraq contracts have boosted the annual revenue of British-based PMCs alone from $320 million to over $1.7 billion.

The American firm Blackwater has become the best known of the PMCs for one reason: four of its employees were ambushed, killed and had their corpses publicly paraded through the streets of Fallujah on March 30. The secretive company has 450 personnel in Iraq, supplying security for CPA facilities, escorting convoys, and providing the personal bodyguard for Bremer. On April 5, eight of its contractors defended the CPA headquarters in Najaf from an attack by Shiite militiamen. In a joint operation with US Army helicopter gunships, the company used two of its own helicopters to re-supply its men with ammunition.

Many of the personnel on Blackwater’s payroll are ex-US special forces. Their services come at a hefty price. For particularly risky operations—such as attempting to take a shipment of supplies through Fallujah for example—they are believed to charge as much as $1,500 per day. Blackwater also employs 60 Chilean ex-commandos who were trained under the Pinochet dictatorship.

Control Risks Group, a long-established British private security concern, has 500 mainly ex-British military personnel in Iraq, especially former members of the elite Special Air Services (SAS). It has contracts with the British government and a number of private companies to provide bodyguards and building security services. The services of the British mercenaries cost over $1,000 per day.

The amount of money that can be made working for PMCs has led hundreds of American, British and Australian special forces to resign in order to become mercenaries. The British military has openly expressed concerns that it is losing large numbers of its most highly trained personnel to private firms. As many as 40 members of the Australian SAS, which fought in Iraq during the invasion, have resigned to go back as security contractors. The British firm AKE claims to be employing 13 SAS-trained Australians in Iraq.

The British-based Global Risk Strategies is using a far cheaper source for its 1,500-strong private army, which is protecting CPA buildings and other high profile facilities. The company hired over 500 Fijian soldiers and a similar number of Nepalese, who had served in the British Army’s Gurkha regiments, and flew them into Iraq. The Fijian and Nepalese mercenaries are paid just $1,000 per month. An unnamed PMC executive told the Economist: “Why pay for a British platoon to guard a base, when you can hire Gurkhas at a fraction of the cost?”

Last year, Global Risk Strategies carried out a $28 million contract to organise the secure changeover of Iraq’s currency from that of the former Baath regime. On December 1, its Fijian mercenaries were involved in a massacre in the city of Samarra, where they indiscriminately fired on built-up areas after a currency changeover convoy came under attack. At least 10 Iraqi civilians were killed and numerous others wounded.

Some 500 former Gurkhas are also employed by ArmorGroup, an offshoot of the Florida-based security firm Armor Holdings, which was named by Fortune magazine in 1999 as one of America’s 100 fastest growing companies. In Iraq, ArmorGroup contractors protect the Baghdad headquarters and transport depots of the US conglomerates Bechtel and the Halliburton subsidiary KBR. The company also provides convoy protection. Internationally, it has contracts to protect British consular buildings and staff.

An American company, Custer Battles, has a contract to provide security at Baghdad International Airport. It is also using the services of former Gurkhas, as well as personnel recruited in the US. The American firm DynCorp has a $50 million contract to train Iraqi police officers. Vinnell, a subsidiary of Northman Grumman, has a $48 million contract to assist in the training of a new Iraqi Army. The firm USA Environmental has teams of weapons and explosive experts in Iraq and a $65 million contract to collect and destroy unexploded ordinance.

The British/South African company Erinys has the $100 million-plus annual contract to provide security at Iraq’s oil facilities and pipelines. Erinys employs some 14,000 Iraqi security guards on wages of $150 per month, supervised by dozens of former British and apartheid-era South African military.

Four South African Erinys employees were killed during in a guerilla attack in January. It was revealed one of them was Francois Strydom, a white South African who had fought with a pro-apartheid paramilitary in Namibia. Another Erinys contractor who was wounded in the attack, Deon Gouws, had been a member of the South African secret police Vlakplaas and was charged by the South African Truth Commission for murdering an anti-apartheid activist in 1986. A former South African judge Richard Goldstein told the press he knew of 150 former apartheid-era security operatives working as mercenaries in Iraq.

A number of other PMCs are in Iraq fulfilling contracts for the CPA and private companies. Texan firm Meyer & Associates can apparently provide “liaisons with government, diplomatic, military, local and guerilla leaders,” as well as more traditional security services. Overseas Security & Strategic Information offers the services of “highly trained and experienced South African security personnel, managed by former American intelligence officers with paramilitary backgrounds.” Chicago-based Triple Canopy can provide people in Iraq looking for protection with everything from “discreet travel companions to heavily armoured high profile convoy escort.” Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) claims to have a database of 12,500 former US military and police personnel available for hire.

The secrecy surrounding the operations of PMCs is enabling the White House to obscure the actual cost in terms of men and casualties it is taking to sustain the illegal occupation of Iraq. If a private contractor is killed or injured for whatever reason in Iraq, it is up to company to choose whether to make the information public. Few choose to highlight their casualties. Peter Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written on the operations of private security firms for over a decade, estimated in an April 15 essay that between 30 and 50 PMC employees had been killed in fighting, with “tens” more killed in accidents.

In the last week alone, six more security contractors—two South African, two Fijians and two American—have been killed. Applying the same ratio of six wounded to every death being suffered by the US military, Singer estimated that at least 200 to 300 wounded contractors have not been reported.

The secrecy of PMCs poses another, ominous possibility. The occupation of Iraq involves a systematic campaign of murder and reprisals against growing Iraqi resistance. Mercenaries provide the Bush administration with a supply of hired killers to carry out the dirtiest aspects of colonial repression—from torture to provocations and assassination—which it would prefer the military was not directly involved in.

It is a measure of how little support there actually is for the US presence in Iraq—both among the Iraqi and the American people—that the Bush administration is dependent on such outfits to police the occupation.