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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May 2004, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
The business of war in Iraq
Jon Leyne
By Jon Leyne
BBC correspondent in Washington

Private security guards protect Paul Bremer
Private security firms provide security for US envoy Paul Bremer
In Iraq today, the business of war and its aftermath is being privatised like never before.

There are estimated to be up to 20,000 private security contractors working in the country - nobody knows for sure exactly what the figure is.

They are employed in some of the most high-profile and controversial roles.

The private security firm Blackwater provides the personal security detail for the US envoy, Paul Bremer.

At least two other firms provided staff who worked in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison: Titan Corporation supplied interpreters, and CACI International of Virginia, interrogators.

At least one employee from each of those companies has been named in internal Pentagon reports about the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Nobody planned this huge expansion of the industry, and many veterans of the business are worried that it is out of control.

'Throwing bodies at opportunities'

One of the oldest established firms is the curiously named Steele Foundation.

Their chief executive, Kenn Kurtz, said he has seen widely varying levels of training, experience and resources amongst his competitors.

"I am very concerned about the background and experience of the private security people who are going into Iraq today, the quality of individuals," he said in his office outside San Francisco.

"They lack the experience and the knowledge of how to carry out projects in that type of environment. There are many, many companies that are really throwing bodies - as opposed to well-trained professionals - at the opportunities," he added.
Private security guard Krag Redinger
Krag Redinger wore a beard and Arabic head-dress to melt into his surroundings

We met one of the employees of the Steele Foundation, Krag Redinger, just back from an assignment guarding a construction project in northern Iraq.

Like many in the business he is an ex-marine, who fought in the 1991 Gulf War.

Unlike many of his more macho comrades, his aim is to slip into the background. The gun is still there in the photos, but he is wearing a beard and Arabic headdress.

For this work, Mr Redinger can expect to receive between $10,000 and $20,000 a month:

"The rewards are high," he said, adding, "And they are not just monetary rewards."

"I take a certain amount of pleasure and a certain amount of integrity to do something like this. You have somebody's life in your hands in the highest threat environment, and that means a lot to me," Mr Redinger said.

Unknown death toll

As the US - and for that matter British - military has become increasingly over-stretched, so the role of the private contractors has encroached on what was the traditional preserve of the military.

The trouble is these new private armies have little command and control, and even less accountability. They simply are not under anyone's jurisdiction.

It is a situation Peter Singer, of the Brookings Institution, has been warning about for years:

"There are strict legal regulations on how you deal with soldiers when they commit crimes," he said. "You have the court martial system set up to investigate, prosecute and potentially punish them if they are found guilty."

The burnt out shell of a destroyed private armoured truck
More than 50 private security contractors have been killed in Iraq
"For the contractors, there is nothing like that," he said.

"There are contractors who are suspected of being involved in these crimes [in Abu Ghraib], including one who is suspected of raping a juvenile male detainee, who basically has walked [free] because there is no jurisdiction over it.

"There is a loophole in the law that we need to close," he said.

The US Congress attempted to fill that gap when it passed legislation called the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act four years ago, aiming to give domestic American courts jurisdiction over foreign contractors.

But the law has never been implemented, and some doubt it has done anything except provide work for lawyers.

What happens, for example, if the contractors or their employees are not American? Can they really be dragged back to Virginia, say, for trial?

It's not just the chaotic lack of control that is causing concern.

Amongst these private contractors, there is a daily, almost unseen death toll. At least 50 private security contractors have died in Iraq.

That is nearly a tenth of the total American death toll. Many of the deaths do not get reported.

The Pentagon does not keep a list.

"We've lost some employees," admitted Kenn Kurtz.

"In fact I would say that every major competitor of ours has lost employees as well. And that is not regularly advertised. Every day we see US military troops killed, but private contractors are being killed, I would say, on a weekly basis," he added.

By design or not, the situation certainly helps the Pentagon to keep down the official death toll reported regularly in the media.

As the United States struggles to reduce its profile in Iraq, there are likely to be more private security contractors, and more casualties amongst them.

It all adds to the air of slightly chaotic improvisation that has been the hallmark of the occupation of Iraq.

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