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Iraq a land of opportunity for South Africa's apartheid-era troops

PRETORIA, South Africa—A decade after the end of white rule, the war in Iraq is reminding South Africans of yet another uncomfortable legacy from the brutal days of apartheid—South Africa's role in providing mercenaries to a wide range of military causes throughout the world.

Hundreds of former South African soldiers and police officers are serving in Iraq now as private security contractors. South Africans are among the private soldiers who guard L. Paul Bremer, the chief U.S. envoy to Iraq, and patrol the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. command is headquartered.

At least six South Africans have been killed there.

When the fifth South African was killed in Iraq last month, the government pleaded with its citizens not to seek their fortunes in Iraq. Then, it threatened to stop them—possibly under a law that forbids mercenary activities. The sixth was killed a week ago in Kirkuk.

"Very often, not even the families are aware that their husbands, sons and brothers have gone to Iraq," South Africa's Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad told the South African Press Association.

The concerns come as South Africa plays a prominent leadership role in tackling Africa's myriad problems. South Africa has brokered peace in several civil wars and committed troops to monitor truces in Burundi and Liberia. At the same time, South Africa has tried to live down its reputation for supplying men to far-off causes.

It is a difficult task. From the Ivory Coast to Papua New Guinea, South African mercenaries have trained national armies, guarded politicians, protected oil and mining facilities—and, of course, fought on the frontlines.

They are widely known for their superior training, management skills and prowess with weapons and technology. They are also abundant and cost half as much to hire as ex-U.S. or British special forces soldiers.

With apartheid's demise, hundreds of white and black soldiers found themselves unemployed after their units were disbanded. Others quit rather than work for the black-majority government that swept into power in 1994. Whites worried about affirmative action policies. Blacks were seen as sellouts for fighting in the apartheid military.

Many were recruited by Executive Outcomes, a shadowy South African security company led by former special forces commanders of the infamous 32 Battalion, which spearheaded a covert war in Namibia and Angola in the 1970s and ྌs.

In the mid-1990s, several hundred Executive Outcomes soldiers, using combat helicopters and fighter jets, protected Angola's oil-rich government from tens of thousands of UNITA rebels. And in Sierra Leone, they helped defeat the rag-tag rebels of the Revolutionary United Front.

Today Executive Outcomes is defunct. But South African mercenaries still roam the continent seeking to make money from the developing world's miseries.

Last year, the government of the Ivory Coast placed dozens of soldiers of fortune, including many former Executive Outcomes members, on its bankroll to fight off rebels who have effectively split the nation in two.

In March, 70 suspected mercenaries—South Africans, Angolans and other nationalities—flew from South Africa en route to allegedly overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea.

But they were nabbed in Zimbabwe, where they allegedly stopped to collect weapons. Hours earlier, another 15 were taken into custody in Equatorial Guinea, apparently after a tip-off from the South African government.

Many were ex-members of the 32 Battalion and were allegedly going to be paid $1.9 million and given oil concessions. They were charged with conspiring to commit a coup, which they have denied.

"We don't like the idea that South Africa has become a cesspool of mercenaries," South Africa's foreign affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, told South African reporters at the time of their arrest.

Last month, South Africa agreed to their extradition to Equatorial Guinea to face trial. The decision not to push to have them tried in a South African court was widely seen as a warning to potential mercenaries.

But it's unlikely to deter South Africans from flocking to Iraq. The money is plentiful, and jobs for men with their skills are scarce.

"Iraq is a godsend in terms of keeping these guys employed," said Johann Smith, a security consultant and former South African intelligence operative.

Some have murky pasts in brutal apartheid-era military units whose goal was to perpetuate white rule at any cost.

One security guard killed in Iraq confessed to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he was part of an apartheid death squad that committed human rights atrocities.

A South African soldier or police officer can make eight times his usual annual salary by working in Iraq—as much as $15,000 a month, said Henri Boshoff, a military analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

"If you ask me at 11 a.m. today that you need 100 well-trained soldiers, I can get them for you by 11 a.m. tomorrow," said Smith.

Legally, South Africa could stop them. The 1998 Foreign Military Assistance Act forbids citizens from taking part in wars or providing security, logistical support or training without government permission.

But enforcing the legislation is proving to be difficult. South Africa's liberal Constitution guarantees the right to a livelihood, making it easy to challenge the 1998 law.

So far, two South African mercenaries have been prosecuted under the law for fighting in the Ivory Coast. Both received slaps on the wrists: one paid $3,000, the other $14,000 in fines. They spent no time in prison.

No South African has been charged for working in Iraq.

South Africa has dozens of private airstrips. Borders are porous. New recruits often fly to Europe, Jordan or Kuwait as if they were going on vacation. There, they sign contracts and slip into Iraq.


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