Security Firms Coming Under Fire in Iraq
The Associated Press

MOYOCK, N.C. - A dark sport utility vehicle threads down a narrow street as the sound of gunfire zings from buildings on the left. The vehicle stalls, and its occupants slide out, firing blanks at their attackers as they scramble for an alley.

The paramilitary exercise provides training for the real warfare of Iraq - but this is no military boot camp.

At Blackwater USA's paramilitary training camp, private security guards prepare to work in Iraq, where they serve as commando teams, give strategic advice, even operate a military's supply lines - all for a price.

The scene from the training camp was eerily echoed weeks later, when three former Army Rangers and a former Navy SEAL employed by Blackwater USA's security consulting subsidiary were killed in Fallujah.

The men were providing security for food deliveries on March 31 when their vehicle was hit by rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. Their charred, mutilated bodies were dragged through the streets.

A company official said Friday that the men may have been lured into an ambush by Iraqi civil defense workers.

Armed protection teams like the Blackwater group, which was working under a contract with the Coalition Provisional Authority, are the tip of an industry with annual revenues of $100 billion worldwide, said Peter W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry."

On Saturday, television footage showed insurgents holding an apparently American prisoner who wore what appeared to be a light flak jacket of the sort worn by private security guards.

Experts say even the grisly news photos of the Fallujah attack are unlikely to deter people eager to collect some of the estimated $1 billion being spent on private security in Iraq.

The U.S. occupation is "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to make big bucks," said Daniel Biran, a former Israeli special forces soldier who is associate managing director for security practice at Boston's Citigate Global Intelligence.

The pay for private workers in dangerous places like Iraq is generous. Experienced people can make $1,000 a day, according to Singer. The first $120,000 earned by Americans working in Iraq is tax-free, Murray said.

And if things get too hairy, private workers - unlike soldiers - can quit.

In comparison, a Green Beret master sergeant with 20 years of service and getting various allowances may earn $67,000 annually, said Ken McGraw, a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla.

Jeff Murray, founder of Murray & Associates in Fayetteville, recently spent two months in Iraq scouting security needs for a British company.

"I would go back, yes," said Murray, a 51-year-old former Army captain. "And I'm actively seeking other clients to represent."

About 15,000 civilians are working for private defense contractors in Iraq, feeding the approximately 135,000 U.S. troops, fueling vehicles and training Iraqi police. An exact figure for the ones who provide armed security is not known.

Blackwater, founded in 1998 by a trio of former Navy SEALs, is considered a top company in the private defense field. It has roughly 450 armed specialists in Iraq, most former U.S. special operations troops and police SWAT team members. Its workers guard people such as Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq.

Blackwater USA's headquarters is on 6,000 acres at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in northeastern North Carolina. The complex has firing ranges and even its own dirt landing strip where pilots can practice reaching and leaving trouble spots. Kennels hold dogs in training for security work.

About 50,000 people have been given firearms or small-group tactics training here, after their backgrounds are thoroughly checked.

Trainees come from around the world. A Chilean team worked out on one recent day. They were preceded at the training site by a Greek anti-terrorism squad and a presidential protection detail from Colombia.

Blackwater is privately held, and declined to disclose its revenues. But its government contracts include training thousands of sailors each year.

Privatization advocates say outsourcing security makes financial sense for the government given that it takes 18 months and costs about $250,000 to train an entry-level Green Beret, while an outsourced security operative can be hired when needed.

Singer, however, says the ranks of corporate warriors are swelling because they are politically more palatable than increasing military force strength, he said.

"What's really driving this in Iraq is trying to displace the political costs," he said.


Associated Press Writer Allen G. Breed in Raleigh contributed to this story.