Cowboy Up

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MAY 24, 2004

Cowboy Up

It was just before dusk at Baghdad's Al Hamra Hotel, and the patio
by the swimming pool was humming with activity. "Bushmaster," an
Australian security contractor wearing an olive-drab floppy hat,
sat at his usual table drinking chilled vodka straight from the
bottle. "Have a swig of Stoli, mates!" he slurred across the
courtyard to a trio of hulking operatives from Blackwater Security
Consulting, the secretive U.S. outfit whose guards had beenambushed and burned to death in Falluja a month earlier. Suddenly,
there was a commotion in the lobby, and 30 South African
mercenaries wearing khaki shorts and body armor marched single file
into the courtyard. Bulging arms covered with multicolored tattoos,
shaved heads gleaming, they carried an arsenal of weaponry--black
M-4 assault rifles, 9mm pistols, stun grenades, serrated knives.
Gathering in a semicircle, they answered a military roll call,
barking out their names and ranks in guttural Afrikaans. One of the
South African mercs picked up the rifle of an Australian soldier
seated poolside, handled it admiringly, then peered down the laser
scope at a table full of journalists. "It's like the holding pen
for the [South African] Truth and Reconciliation Commission,"
muttered a food-service provider from the military--a self-
described "war profiteer"--seated at our table.

In the last few months, Baghdad's corporate warriors have all but
taken over the city. They cruise the streets in late-model SUVs,
the long, steel barrels of their automatic weapons protruding from
open windows. They've essentially taken over a dozen hotels in the
capital. I counted as many as 100 "security consultants," as most
prefer to be called, lounging poolside at the Al Hamra on several
evenings this week--four or five times the number I saw in my
previous visit to the city. As many as 20,000 contractors are
currently believed to be in Iraq, and the number keeps growing.

These private armies have assumed many duties normally carried out
by troops during wartime. A Virginia-based firm, Custer Battles,
guards Baghdad Airport. Erinys, a British company, protects oil
fields. Blackwater provides bodyguards for officials of the
Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and escorts military supply
convoys along Iraq's dangerous highways. DynCorp of Virginia has
been hired to help train Iraq's police and the Iraqi Civil Defense
Corps. And, of course, CACI International Inc. provided
interrogators inside Abu Ghraib prison.

For American soldiers and Marines in Iraq, the rapid proliferation
of contractors is, at best, a mixed blessing. Some troops I talked
to say the contractors' presence frees up their own thinly
stretched units to carry out operational activities--including
running security patrols, searching for improvised explosive
devices, and battling the growing insurgency. "We fight the war,
and they do the shit work," one top officer in Baghdad said.

But many troops resent the fact that the private gunmen earn as much
as $1, 000 per day--ten times the average Marine's salary. And
several told me that they find it alarming that so many private
gunmen are on the loose in Iraq, unbeholden to military
regulations. As the violence intensifies, some contractors have
engaged in sustained firefights and even pitched battles with Iraqi
insurgents; as many as 50 contractors have been killed in action. "I
went to Baghdad last month and couldn't believe how many armed
foreign civilians were moving around the streets," I was told by a
major in the First Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq. "It blew me
away."

The U.S. military and the contractors work in close proximity. When
I flew around northern Iraq two weeks ago on an inspection tour of
police academies with Lieutenant General David H. Petraeus--the
former 101st Airborne Division commander who is now rebuilding
Iraq's security forces--Petraeus's entourage was guarded, in part,
by Blackwater's private security men. In Najaf in April, where
hundreds of fighters from Moqtada Al Sadr's Mahdi Army surrounded
CPA headquarters, eight Blackwater operators, one Marine, and three
Salvadoran soldiers fought side by side from the CPA's rooftop.
After ten hours spent fending off sniper fire and rocket-propelled
grenades, the men were resupplied by a Blackwater helicopter flown
by a veteran Army pilot, who dropped clips of ammunition onto the
rooftop. A short time later, the helicopter returned and evacuated
a Marine. Some American officials sense commitment and dedication
from the contractors. "I looked in their eyes," Brigadier General
Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman, told The
Washington Post after meeting the American mercenaries. "They knew
what they were here for. ... They were absolutely confident."

Sometimes, however, the mercenaries' activities do more harm than
good. The uneasy relationship between the troops and the
contractors reached its nadir on March 31, when the four Blackwater
men were brutally murdered in Falluja, their body parts strung up
on a bridge. The previous day, the four contractors, all heavily
armed but driving unarmored vehicles, had reportedly escorted a
food convoy to a nearby Marine base. They spent the night at the
base, apparently ate alongside the troops, and then left the next
morning for Baghdad, inexplicably taking a shortcut through the
resistance stronghold. "We would have told them not do it," said
one Marine officer. The officer angrily called the contractors
"cowboys" and said they had failed to inform anyone on the base
about their plans, a direct violation of military policy. The
Marines learned of the ambush and murder by watching CNN.

Some troops I talked to had felt a powerful urge to avenge the
contractors' deaths. "They were Americans, and they were brutally
murdered. My instinct was, 'We've got to go in,'" said First
Sergeant William Skiles, a leader of Echo Company, Second
Battalion, First Marine Regiment. But many others were incensed
that the mercenaries had forced the military's hand. "My first
questions were, 'Who are these people, what were they doing there,
and why didn't we know about it?'" said Lieutenant General James T.
Conway, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force in
Falluja. Conway told me he'd had a plan in place to establish
military control over Falluja but that intense political pressure
to invade the city following the Blackwater killings obliged him to
move far more quickly than he had wanted. Conway expressed his
reservations to Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of
allied forces in Iraq. But he was told that Washington demanded
immediate action. Days later, Conway sent two battalions into
Falluja, where they killed hundreds of Iraqi combatants and
civilians, leveled much of the city, and caused a wave of
international opprobrium that ultimately forced Conway to withdraw
his troops.

The ambush killings in Falluja, and the beheading of a contractor
this week, sent shock waves through the mercenary corps in Baghdad.
Even so, the brutal attack seems unlikely to dampen the contracting
boom. "These guys may be chastened, but nobody's talking about
leaving Iraq," I was told by one "security consultant" as he sipped
a Carlsberg poolside last week. "For one thing, the money's too
damn good." He also pointed out that most of the contractors are
the hardest of the hard core--veterans of such elite outfits as the
U.S. Special Forces; the Rhodesian Selous Scouts, the former special
forces of the Rhodesian white regime; and Executive Outcomes, the
now-disbanded South African mercenary army that fought in Sierra
Leone and Angola.

These men thrive on the danger of working in war zones. As the
security consultant spoke, a contingent of 25 Blackwater operatives
seated across the pool passed around a bottle of Jack Daniel's and
two bottles of vodka donated by Bushmaster. As if on cue, one
Blackwater man pulled out an acoustic guitar, and his two dozen
comrades burst into a rockabilly ditty: "Goin' Down to the River
with My Dirty Ol' Shotgun." Bushmaster, an empty bottle of
Stolichnaya at his feet, grinned and tipped his hat.

By Joshua Hammer

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