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Private security companies in Iraq see big paychecks, big risks

WASHINGTON—With the U.S. military stretched thin in Iraq and pursuing Osama bin Laden on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the job of keeping the peace and guarding the pipeline is being taken over by hired guns.

In the chaotic world of nation building, thousands of former special operations soldiers are working for an untold number of private security companies, making far more than Uncle Sam paid them.

But there are big risks with the big paychecks. Four private security guards from Blackwater Security Consulting of North Carolina were killed Wednesday in Fallujah, Iraq, their bodies burned and dragged through the streets.

Industry experts said Blackwater had a good reputation. But providing security is a new area of business for the 8-year-old firm.

Iraq is much like the Alaskan Gold Rush and the O.K. Corral for private security firms, experts say. Someone needs to protect the thousands of civilians who are rebuilding the country, and the U.S. military is trying to get out of that business. So security companies—some decades old and others only months new—are rushing in.

The private war-zone security industry used to be worth about $500 million. Now, between Iraq and Afghanistan, it's up to a billion dollars and growing, said Michael Cherkasky, the president of Kroll Inc., a 32-year-old New York security firm. This rapid expansion can turn deadly, he said.

"Listen, it is the Gold Rush," said Cherkasky, whose company handles security for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "This is what happens: People who don't know what they're doing can really get hurt."

At first, the companies hired former special operations soldiers and their highly trained equivalents. But as demand grew, the standards for hiring dropped, said former CIA operative Jamie Smith, the first director of Blackwater Consulting and now the chief executive officer of SCG International Risk.

"Companies often take anyone who says they can shoot a gun and are willing to travel, so long as that person is not a criminal," Smith wrote in an e-mail from Afghanistan.

While some companies have plenty of experience, others are popping up out of nowhere and getting millions of dollars in contracts. With the competition for good help intense, they're hiring people who don't know when to fire at attackers and when not to, said Paul Rees, the managing director of Centurion, a London private-security firm that works with Knight Ridder's Baghdad bureau.

Contractors who leave the high-security "Green Zone" in Baghdad, which is patrolled by the U.S. military, often enter a "no-man's land" in groups that are too small for safety and without any military-style intelligence briefings beforehand, said retired special forces Sgt. Maj. Steve Greer, who teaches at the American Military University, an online school geared toward members of the military.

Some security guards are armed; some aren't. For private companies, the "rules of engagement" are dictated by whoever hires them, said SCG's Smith. He said his guards usually fired their weapons only when their clients might be harmed or someone might be killed.

Because contractors are "easy targets" and insurgents see attacks on civilians as a way of forcing the United States to leave Iraq, Greer said, it's only going to get more dangerous for private security companies.

It's impossible to get a firm count on how many private firms and guards are patrolling Iraq and Afghanistan. The State Department lists 22 companies that can provide private security in Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority has awarded six contracts totaling more than $58 million for security, all but one of them on a no-bid basis. Scores of contractors—such as Halliburton of Houston, the biggest contractor in Iraq, and SkyLink Air of Washington, which runs the Baghdad airport—also have hired security to protect their workers and projects.

That's because there aren't enough soldiers.

"We don't have enough troops on the ground to do the things we have to right now, let alone to do all these other tasks like installation security, convoy, escort and the like," said Peter Singer, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a Washington public-policy center. "Iraq is the first time you've seen such large numbers right by the wayside with U.S. military folks."

Thousands of former military specialists across the globe are in the security business, said Singer, the author of the book "Corporate Warriors." It's a common career path for retired or discharged former soldiers, who can make several thousand dollars a day.

The military is starting to fret about a "brain drain."

"The men and some women are seeing lucrative contracts allowing them to make four or five times their current salary and stay in the area for far less time," SCG's Smith wrote from Afghanistan. "It's appealing when contrasted with military life. We get five to ten resumes per day."

It's not for everyone. Greer, one of whose friends was killed as a private security worker last fall, referred to it as "Russian roulette with your retirement."

Kroll's Cherkasky, when asked if he'd been to Iraq, where he has more than 100 employees, answered: "Are you kidding? I will fly into Kuwait. I will fly into Jordan. I will not fly into Iraq."


(Dodd, of The Charlotte Observer, reported from Charlotte, N.C.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.