View Full Version : Rise of guns-for-hire in Iraq creates regulatory quandary

05-08-06, 10:12 AM
Rise of guns-for-hire in Iraq creates regulatory quandary

By: ALEXANDRA ZAVIS - Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- A half-dozen armored sport utility vehicles with guns pointed out the windows careen onto Baghdad's busy airport highway, bringing traffic to a screeching halt.

Iraqis have learned to keep a wary distance from the convoys of foreign guns-for-hire in mirrored sunglasses and bulletproof vests, who have a reputation of firing at any vehicle that gets too close because of the ever-present danger of suicide bombers.

Iraqi officials accuse many of the companies providing protection in violence-plagued Iraq of being a law unto themselves, prompting a flurry of attempts to better regulate an industry that is expanding rapidly around the world.

South Africa and Britain are proposing tough new laws governing the participation of their nationals in foreign conflicts. Humanitarian groups are trying to identify gaps in international law. And the industry itself is pushing greater self-regulation.

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who oversees the activities of private security companies, accuses them of being "militias." Some companies counter that Jabr, who has himself been linked to a private Shiite force accused of widespread abuses against Sunni Muslims, is contributing to the problem by refusing to register security contractors.

Since militaries were slashed at the end of the Cold War, private companies have been a growing presence on the world's battlefields, performing jobs conventional forces can no longer handle. It is a hugely competitive, multibillion-dollar industry, with clients ranging from governments and blue-chip corporations to warlords, drug cartels and terror groups.

In Iraq, at least 20,000 contractors -- local and foreign -- are guarding coalition bases, protecting U.S. officials, training Iraqi security forces and interrogating detainees. They also protect businessmen, journalists and humanitarian workers, among others.

Doug Brooks, head of a U.S.-based association of military contractors, says reports of abuse in the industry are exaggerated.

"In general, companies are using people who are middle-aged ex-military, so they know what they are doing, and they don't make as many mistakes" as the armed forces, he said.

The companies say they recognize the need for regulation in a dangerous industry: "We would prefer a high level of professionalism across the board. It makes it easier and safer for everybody," said Greg Lagana, spokesman for U.S.-based DynCorp International.

Many top firms have joined associations like Brooks' International Peace Operations Association, which impose stringent human rights standards on their members.

Firms say they also are subject to volumes of legislation in the countries where they are based, recruit and operate, including arms-trafficking and anti-corruption laws.

Their employees are bound by international conventions on war crimes, just like their uniformed counterparts. Those working for the U.S. government can also be prosecuted in an American criminal court for offenses committed abroad.

And there is the pressure of the marketplace: "Failure in this industry comes soonest to those who openly violate sound business principles and disregard the moral, ethical and legal high ground," said Chris Taylor, Blackwater USA's vice president for strategic initiatives.

Abuses happen nonetheless. In Iraq, civilians mistaken for car bombers have been shot and killed. There also has been gunfire exchanged between contractors and Iraqi security forces.

"Normally, it would be that state in which the companies operate that is responsible for policing this, but these companies typically operate in failed states," said P.W. Singer, an expert on private military companies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. And he said human rights violations are rarely prosecuted outside the country where they happened because of the logistic difficulties.

Two military reports have implicated contractors working as interrogators and translators in the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, but unlike their military counterparts, they have not been tried. Their employers deny the allegations.

The United Nations, African Union and International Committee of the Red Cross, among others, are working on proposals to tighten the regulatory framework.

South Africa is proposing the most sweeping reform. It is embarrassed by the participation of apartheid-era defense force members in African conflicts, including a foiled 2004 plot to overthrow Equatorial Guinea's dictator in exchange for oil concessions.

A bill before the South African Parliament would bar virtually any activity in a conflict zone without government authorization -- even humanitarian work.

U.S. officials in Iraq have expressed alarm. South Africa's former soldiers are among the most sought-after there, due to their professionalism and experience in African wars.

"Combat experience counts," said Lt. Col. Wallace Dillon, deputy commander of the Reconstruction Operations Center, or ROC, which uses contractors to escort personnel to building sites and guard convoys of material. "Would you want a doctor operating on you who has never performed surgery before?"

Britain, where some of the biggest companies in Iraq are headquartered, is considering less drastic measures. A parliamentary Green Paper outlines options including licensing the companies and approving their contracts.

Andy Bearpark, head of the British Association of Private Security Companies, welcomed this approach but worried about the length of the process and criteria to be used.

"The British industry doesn't want to lose out to the American industry because it takes too long to get a contract licensed," he said.

In Iraq, the former U.S. authorities started registering security companies and issuing weapons permits. But the process stopped after sovereignty was returned to a transitional Iraqi government in 2004.

Jabr says there are already too many companies, many of them recruiting from Saddam Hussein's feared former forces. He is refusing to license more firms without vetting their employees.

But the ministry's mostly Shiite security forces are accused of torturing and killing members of the Sunni Arab minority that dominated under Saddam, making companies reluctant to give out information about whom they hire.

Meanwhile, lawlessness reigns. More firms are entering the market, and no one knows who they are.

For their own safety, many companies have started reporting to the ROC: the military operations center offers daily security briefings, a vehicle tracking system and panic buttons.

The system has improved coordination between the military and civilian contractors, Dillon, its deputy commander, said. But participation is not a requirement of most U.S. contracts.

The Department of Defense insists its contractors abide by the same rules of engagement as coalition forces, but that is not a requirement of other U.S. departments operating in Iraq, Dillon said.

"Governments have to be smarter about this," said Singer, arguing they can use their buying power to shape the industry. "Support those that have good oversight. If they find out their contractors did anything wrong, hammer them."

Associated Press reporter Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report from Baghdad.