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Last Updated: Monday, 26 April, 2004, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
NI officers on Iraq frontline
Maryann Maguire
BBC Northern Ireland

Scores of former police officers and soldiers from Northern Ireland are leaving to work as private security guards in Iraq.

Thirsty for wartime action and generous pay packets, they are joining the ranks of a growing army of private bodyguards and security consultants.

Iraqis loot and set fire to an abandoned US army humvee in Baghdad
Iraqis vent their anger on an abandoned US army vehicle
It is understood that 55 ex-soldiers and policemen from the province are employed by a firm called Control Risk Group, which is one of a small number of companies in the field.

In Iraq their main task is to provide security to foreign nationals involved in reconstructing the country's infrastructure, as well as members of the Provisional Coalition Authority.

But some are also helping to train the country's new police force, or providing security assessments to a host of foreign firms.

According to figures released by the Foreign Office, approximately 10% of Britain and America's post-war reconstruction effort has been set aside to finance such firms.

Many of those leaving Belfast for Baghdad are former RUC officers who left the force under Patten, while others have taken early retirement. But as many as 100 have also left the ranks of the Army.

At least 20 officers have also arrived after leaving the Police Service of Northern Ireland's close-protection unit in the past six months.

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen White
Stephen White of the PSNI was a senior figure in policing Iraq
Dozens of other policemen are understood to have left other departments after Chief Constable Hugh Orde refused their requests for sabbatical leave to follow the footsteps of Assistant Chief Constable Stephen White, who went to train Iraqi police in Basra.

Former RUC officers and soldiers who have served in Northern Ireland are highly sought after, according to Tim Mercer, a Belfast-based security consultant.

"They have first-hand experience of policing in a hostile environment where they are constantly under threat, and have a natural reflex of knowing where to look for the danger," he says.

"They also have experience of working hand-in-hand with the military, a skill which is highly valued in a place like Iraq and a natural understanding of how to deal with people in a community where ethnic tensions run high."

'Danger zone'

Ryan from County Down, who did not want to give his real name for security reasons, left the Parachute Regiment several months ago to work for a number of the main international security firms.

"I know of at least 200 people from Northern Ireland doing this type of work in Iraq," he says.

"We often get chatting, for example when a convoy is stopped after a bomb is found by the road."

Since arriving, he has been bombed and shot at twice, and talks about how the convoys he escorts are regularly surrounded by hostile crowds. He believes the situation is getting worse.

"The shootings are a very small part of it," he says.

"The problem is that there are no safe areas. Even the areas that are considered safe, such as military bases, are not safe."

Most of the former security personnel from Northern Ireland have been employed by three large multi-national security firms based in London.

They are offered salaries that no army or police service in the world can compete with.

Most bodyguards earn an average of 70,000 to 100,000 a year, tax free.

It is understood that contracts are flexible, and most of those employed as bodyguards work on a pattern of six weeks on and three weeks off.

Travel back and forth to Northern Ireland, as well as food and accommodation, is covered.

But it is risky business. Last month, Colour Sergeant Christopher McDonald from Bangor, County Down, was killed along with a Canadian colleague in the northern city of Mosul.

Colour Sergeant McDonald pictured with Iraqi youngsters
Colour Sergeant McDonald had been working as a security guard
It is understood the convoy he was travelling in was attacked by masked gunmen. After the shoot out, his killers set fire to the vehicle.

Two weeks before that, four US security guards were also murdered in Fallujah. Their bodies were dragged through the streets of the city.

So is the money worth the risk? Ryan says there is no point in earning so much money if "you're not around to spend it".

He insists he went to Iraq for career reasons.

"If you want to get into security and close protection, Iraq is a definite tick in the box. It's something that is going to put you a cut above the rest."

But Ryan agrees that there are many "cowboys" around.

"You see many Americans driving around with guns sticking out of the windows and there are those who forget why they are there and get caught up playing private soldiers."

But six years after the Good Friday Agreement, the adrenaline rush of a theatre like Iraq is the principal motivating factor for ex-soldiers and policemen.

"There are many reasons for which former security personnel are travelling to Iraq", says Tim Mercer. "For some, it's the money. For others, it's the excitement."

But many human rights groups are calling for such groups to be banned. They are questioning their rules of engagement and say their role and responsibilities have to be defined.

In the past three months, there have been reports of shoot outs resulting in the deaths of dozens of Iraqi civilians.

Such bloodshed is rarely reported as the firms draw a cloak of silence to protect their clients' identity and reputation.

These concerns have led the Coalition Provisional Authority to establish a working group to look at the dozens of private firms operating in the country.

Its findings have so far not been made public.

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