Iraq's insurgents are conducting increasingly sophisticated and lethal attacks on the private security companies that are crucial to the nation's reconstruction and the eventual departure of U.S. troops, contractors and U.S. officials say.
These contractors and officials point to the surprising level of planning and brutality involved in a May 8 attack on the British security company Hart Security Ltd., which provides protection to convoys, homes and individuals in Iraq.
Twelve out of 18 Iraqi and international guards were killed in the attack, in which insurgents ambushed a convoy escorting cargo for the U.S. forces from Baghdad to a base in al-Asat, about 90 miles west of the city.
Once resistance from the security team ended, the attackers moved in to finish off the wounded, then piled several of the bodies on top of a bomb so they could not be removed without setting off an explosion, sources said.
The terrorists taped the event, presumably to develop a training and recruiting tool and to study to refine their techniques. The six-minute video is available on the Internet with a claim of responsibility from the terrorist group Ansar al-Sunnah Army.
Security specialists said the terrorists appeared to have calibrated mortars in advance of the attack, permitting direct hits on the five-vehicle convoy just as it hit a series of hidden bombs laid out in a "daisy chain" along the road.
The militants then managed to split up the convoy and systematically wipe out members of each smaller component.
Such attacks "have become much more organized and much more complex," said one retired special-operations officer working as a security manager for a firm operating in Iraq.
"In 2003, they were random small-arms fire. Then they escalated to roadside bombs -- sometimes command-detonated or with tripwires. Then they escalated to car bombs that would run a ramp and pull into a convoy or traffic circle.
"And now they are very well organized, rehearsed, orchestrated, using a combination of rocket-propelled grenades, [roadside bombs] set in a daisy chain to get the wounded as they exit the vehicles, heavy machine guns, small arms and hand-thrown grenades," he said.
At least 93 security operators have been killed in Iraq since April 2003, icasualties.org reported. The Web site showed the number of contractor deaths spiking in April with 20 killed, the most since 31 contractors died in August 2004. So far, seven have been killed this month.
Security operators think the numbers are higher. About 130 private security companies, each with hundreds of operators working in Iraq, are hired to defend personnel, facilities and convoys.
Most are highly skilled and ex-military professionals who have been in the protection business "longer than the average soldier in Iraq has been alive" said one U.S. official in Baghdad.
As in any industry, the sector also has its share of inexperienced wannabes, as they are described derisively by some of the operators in Baghdad.
Some guards also say recruiters have hit the bottom of the professional barrel and are hiring anyone who knows how to handle a gun.
Security companies are making huge profits providing clients with a line of armored cars, low-visibility cars, armed guards known as "shooters," and drivers.
With the intensity and sophistication of terrorist attacks increasing, and with the constant fear of kidnapping, the cost of security has mushroomed to account for 16 percent of the total reconstruction budget.
But the bottom line is that without private security companies, "reconstruction would not be done" in Iraq, said Lawrence Peter, director of a group representing private security companies in Iraq.
"Private security companies are responsible for the security of the entire reconstruction effort," Mr. Peter said. "If we didn't have them here, we would need another division of troops.
"These men who have died, they served with distinction," he said.