Security businesses, black market in guns thrive

Safety: The wild west atmosphere slows rebuilding, boosts costs and attracts risk-seekers.

Iraq Conflict : Soldiers And Security

March 18, 2004|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Increasing insurgent attacks on "soft" foreign targets in Iraq such as contractors, missionaries and civilian aid workers have forced many companies involved in reconstruction to hire small armies of security guards to protect their workers, generating costs that they never imagined when they started their projects.

At the same time, the escalating demand for protection has drawn security companies and personnel with questionable levels of training to the country and has led some contractors to arm themselves with guns purchased on the black market, contractors and security specialists say.

The growing number of gun-toting civilians in Iraq has created a wild west-like atmosphere that could become particularly troublesome once the United States hands over control to Iraqis on June 30, experts say.

Without special diplomatic agreements in place, a U.S. civilian who is accused of mishandling a weapon or killing or injuring an Iraqi civilian might be subject to an Iraqi justice system.

"They're not members of the U.S. military or governed by the code of conduct, but they're civilians operating in a combat zone ... an inherent disconnect," said P.W. Singer, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution and author of Corporate Warriors - The Rise of the Privatized Military.

"What happens if they get in a firefight and something goes wrong and they get captured? We're in a sense making up the rules as we go along, and that's not a recipe for good policy."

Before yesterday's blast that leveled the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad, at least 20 foreign contractors had been killed in Iraq since major hostilities were declared at an end by President Bush last May 1, along with a number of Iraqis working for contractors, according to published reports.

No one formally tracks civilian deaths and injuries.

On Monday, four unarmed Southern Baptist missionaries were shot to death in Mosul when their car was ambushed.

On Tuesday, a German national and a Dutch national working on a water purification project were killed near Hillah, south of Baghdad. Their driver and a security guard also died.

On March 9, two American civilians working for the U.S. occupation authority were killed after several gunmen stopped their vehicle at a makeshift checkpoint south of Baghdad. Four men arrested in the killings were members of the new American-trained Iraqi police force, U.S. officials said.

"Clearly, there has been a shift in the insurgency and the way the extremists are conducting operations," Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the highest-ranking commander in Iraq, said at a military ceremony Tuesday, pointing to the rash of civilian deaths.

"It is very clear they are going after these targets that might create some splits within the coalition."

This is a far different situation from that predicted by the government in the days leading up to the war.

"My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators," Vice President Dick Cheney said then.

A year later, in response to escalating attacks on civilians, and with $10 billion in new Iraq contracts being awarded this month, the Pentagon is soliciting bids for private security forces to protect its 10 prime U.S. contractors and their subcontractors.

Currently, contractors working in Iraq are responsible for their own security. The large companies, such as KBR - Halliburton's construction wing - and Bechtel, typically hire security firms that bring their own weapons. Many forbid or discourage their workers who are not employed as guards from carrying firearms.

Regulations set by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority say these civilians must receive special approval to carry a gun and have it licensed.

In such cases, the military is supposed to issue the gun and provide training, said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council, a trade organization representing contractors who sell services to the Pentagon and other agencies.

But the regulations have not been strictly enforced, and some contract workers - a good share of whom are retired from the military - choose to arm themselves with guns purchased on the black market, which are plentiful but often unreliable.

"The practical limitation is that the U.S. military doesn't have a lot of extra guns lying around," Chvotkin said. "I understand there's a lot of firepower in Iraq of all kinds. With the knowledge of the military or without, a lot of individuals are carrying pistols."

They're doing so because convoys are regularly coming under attack, often by insurgents who plant roadside explosives that can be detonated with remote devices, sometimes by snipers waiting for convoys with as many as 1,000 trucks and only a few Humvees providing security.

Meanwhile, contractors and researchers who study the military say they're concerned about the caliber of some of the guards employed by security companies streaming into Iraq.

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