Monday, June 6, 2005

Private security companies, whose duties in Iraq increasingly mirror those of the U.S. military, are in some instances agitating for the right to arm themselves with heavy military-style weapons.

Charged with the front-line responsibility of defending infrastructure projects, homes, personnel and even U.S. military convoys, the companies’ operatives have become prime targets of terrorist attacks.

The Baghdad-based security manager of one company said he would like to see the “PSCs,” as the companies are known in Iraq, equipped with 40 mm grenade launchers, shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets and M72 anti-armor Vietnam holdovers or AT4 bunker busters.

Not everyone wants to see such weapons in the hands of the estimated 25,000 security “shooters” in the country, who hail from at least two dozen countries and vary widely in experience and skill level.

“Every guy wants to have the bigger gun,” said Lawrence Peter, director of an association that represents many of the 60-plus security companies officially operating in Iraq.

Mr. Peter argued that PSC operatives “do not conduct offensive operations in Iraq” and therefore should be able to make do with smaller, defensive weapons.

That argument carries little weight with the Baghdad-based security manager, who has access to detailed daily reports on insurgent activity across the country. He argued that “the insurgents have figured out that PSC teams cannot stand toe-to- toe with well-armed insurgent forces.”

A case in point, he said, was a recent attack on an Edinburgh Risk Management Ltd. team involving heavy machine guns and armor-piercing rounds that ripped the security operatives’ vehicle to pieces. Three of five riders were killed in the attack.

“If you are being engaged with a heavy machine gun and rocket-propelled grenades that have a range of 400 [yards], and all you have is an AK-47 and a pistol, you cannot compete,” the manager said.

Despite the risks, security remains a growth industry in Iraq, with private-sector “shooters” protecting the construction of everything from institutions to water-treatment plants to concrete factories.

The numbers are rough — there is no database of people operating in Iraq — but Mr. Peter estimated that the most highly paid operatives number 3,000 to 5,000 and come primarily from the United States, Britain, South Africa and Australia.

He said there are 5,000 to 10,000 more operatives from other countries, such as the Philippines, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Russia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Colombia, Chile and Jordan, as well as a number of former French legionnaires.

Foreign- and Iraqi-owned security companies also employ 5,000 to 10,000 Iraqis, said Mr. Peter, whose group acts as a liaison with the military, diplomats and the Iraqi government.

“It is a market-driven economy,” Mr. Peter said. “The industry has grown to meet the demands.”

As the industry has expanded, the terrorists have become increasingly brutal in their attacks.

“I don’t think there are any companies that are not having problems with insurgents. Everyone is getting hit,” said the Baghdad-based security manager.

PSCs consistently shoot back — with the safety of their client or convoy being their priority. In the past month alone, there have been about 30 attacks on private security.

As the insurgency has gotten smarter, security companies have adapted their strategies — sometimes on a daily basis. Teams often will alternate routes, times and phone codes.

“There is a certain Darwinism at play. That is, the terrorists that are unlucky or stupid tend to get themselves killed. After two years, a lot of them are dead,” a U.S. official said.

Security managers are “developing new approaches in doing this stuff that are not even being discussed in war colleges — how to share information, communicate and operate,” Mr. Peter said. “We are developing doctrine on the fly.”

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