Baghdad meets the Wild West…Posted: August 18, 2009
Private security contractors in Iraq operate in an environment where violence, alcohol and inexperience are rife…
The arrest of a British contractor in the Baghdad Green Zone for the murder two of his colleagues has once again shone a spotlight on the behaviour of private security companies working in Iraq. Here “Sharkey”, a private security contractor who has spent much of the past six years in Iraq, describes his experiences and the changing nature of the industry.
Baghdad’s Green Zone compounds are a lot like the Wild West; often volatile, foreboding places, where disparate groups of men and personalities are thrown together and expected to get along. They are mini-forts behind concrete walls, with many of the trappings of western life, including alcohol. There are guys operating under stress there and others who simply shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Add to that the overall environment in which they are operating. Iraq is not a normal place, and nor is the Green Zone where most of the companies are based. Along with having young men armed to the teeth, most of their outfits have bars.
A couple of years ago at one of the compounds inside the British embassy, around 50 young guys got into a fist fight. They were young and obnoxious, many were on steroids and there they were with guns and beer, which should never mix.
A friend of mine from the regiment was looking after a top Iraqi politician and two SAS guys he was with got in an argument and pulled weapons on each other. They didn’t start shooting, but it was close.
Another time, I was in one of the compounds celebrating a birthday for one of the lads and it was obvious all night that something was going to kick off. There were the tight T-shirts, the Americans, the Brits and the attitude. Sure enough, a brawl erupted.
Most contractors have a story or two about violence of some sort in one of the compounds. Several years back, I was in a low-profile car out near the airport and one of the Blackwater guys fired just above me, believing I had got too close to him. I was livid and took him to task on the spot. Several nights later, I saw him at one of the bars, and he walked over to me. I thought he wanted to fight, but he offered his hand in apology.
I accepted and we got drunk together, so gripes can be sorted there just as they could be in an English bar.
But none of us went out drinking with a weapon. It’s my philosophy that when you have a weapon you just should not drink. End of story.
I was in Baghdad in May 2003 and have spent much of the past six years working all around Iraq. When the occupation phase of the war started, the security companies specialised in ex-special forces operatives from all the three British units, the SAS, the SBS and the Det (an intelligence-driven unit operating in Northern Ireland).
But when the contracts got bigger and more manpower was needed, the companies turned towards a lower tier which was ex-military, but had much less experience in close protection. The contracts kept coming hard and fast and the industry started taking in all comers.
They were greedy and their standards dropped. Soon they were hiring people with no military experience at all; doormen from pubs and people who had done a bodyguard course were all of a sudden calling themselves private security contractors.
There were paramilitaries from developing nations, mercenaries from South Africa and desperados looking for a quick buck. Many of them were trigger-happy and boisterous. It became farcical. They had no idea of risk or how to manage it. Standards kept slipping to the extent that guys were taking massive pay cuts.
To put that into perspective, some of them were only earning £175 per day. I was earning £250 per day in the south of France 15 years ago.