Mercenaries flock to fill vacuum
April 2, 2004
Private security operators now make up the third largest armed force in Iraq, Paul McGeough writes from Baghdad.
When the doors open at Level 5 of the Palestine Hotel, there's a spit-and-polished Gurkha pointing a high-powered gun into the lift.
The whole floor and another above it have been taken by Kellogg Brown & Root, the construction wing of Halliburton, one of the biggest US firms working in Iraq. And though the linguists of occupation don't allow the word "mercenary", the Gurkha is part of a 15,000-strong private security operation that is the third biggest armed force in Iraq.
Their numbers - and salaries as high as $US1000 ($A1300) a day - attest to the danger of this Arab version of Dodge City.
But when they signed up, few would have anticipated the terrible butchery of four colleagues whose bodies were dismembered and dragged through the streets of the western city of Fallujah on Wednesday.
Television footage of the scene - heavily edited before going to air worldwide - showed their corpses being kicked and stoned before being broken up with blows from steel rods.
At least two of them were strung up on a bridge and parts of the other bodies were stuck on poles and paraded around town.
The barbarity at Fallujah provoked outrage in Washington and elsewhere - but did little to change US rhetoric on the pacification of post-war Iraq.
The ranks of the private armies in Iraq are growing so rapidly that US and British defence officials are at a loss to know how to counter offers to the best of their Special Operations and SAS staff.
In the mayhem, Baghdad has been carved into a series of Western security bubbles. There is the Green Zone, American proconsul Paul Bremer's sprawling bunker for which the Pentagon is about to let a $100 million privatised security contract; foreign embassies are grouping and fortifying; and western business and the foreign media have all but withdrawn behind concrete, wire and guns.
Pity the poor Iraqis. They're outside the walls and at the other end of the guns, unprotected from bombers and criminals who have run amok, robbing and kidnapping in a security vacuum in which it is nigh on impossible for a naive new Iraqi police force to control.
And it's not just the foreigners - South Africans, who know they are breaking their country's laws on mercenary activity; skilled Gurkhas and Fijians who can't resist the dollars; or the Chileans who trained under General Pinochet - who are involved.
Beneath all of that is a dubious layer of Iraqi-run security - hundreds of local firms that have the capacity to become clan-based militias if, as some expect, security worsens after the June 30 hand-back of sovereignty to an Iraqi administration.
This is what happens: An Iraqi working with a new foreign media or business sees the opening, recruits 30 or 50 family and friends to whom he gives guns and the ubiquitous baseball cap and then he bids for the security contract.
Australia is doing its bit for the privatised army. Sydney-based AKE Asia-Pacific has teams on the ground and though Australian troops ride shotgun for Australian diplomats in Baghdad, protection for the rest of the small, non-military Australian contingent has been subcontracted to Control Risk Group, whose 1100-strong private army of former British SAS, Nepalese and Fijian soldiers, also guards 500 British civil servants working here. It's a huge drain on the reconstruction budget.
The Fallujah deaths bring the US civilian toll in Iraq to at least 33. The military toll is three short of 600. The March toll - 50 US troops and a dozen civilians of varying nationalities - made it the second worst month of the occupation.
But despite that, US spokesman Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt refused to allow his optimism to be dented by Wednesday's killings - which including the death of five US soldiers in a separate attack near Fallujah.
"Despite an uptick in localised engagements, the overall Iraqi area of operations remains relatively stable with negligible impact on the coalition's ability to continue progress in governance, economic development and restoration of essential services," he said.
We have been confronted with such appalling acts of barbarity before. Remember Mogadishu in 1993 - when Bill Clinton cut and ran from Somalia after the carnage that inspired the Hollywood block-buster Black Hawk Down? And the lynching of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah in September 2000?
First the Americans wanted to blame the remnants of the Saddam regime and then it was associates of al-Qaeda. But it was ordinary Iraqis wielding the steel rods at Fallujah and in broad daylight.