Britain’s Secret Army in Iraq

So many British security firms are cashing in on the violence in Iraq that armed private security men now outnumber most of the national army contingents in the country.

Thousands of former soldiers and police officers from Britain, the US, Australia and South Africa are earning wages as high as £600 a day to protect Western officials, oil company executives and construction firm bosses in Iraq. The SAS is said to be suffering an unprecedented loss of personnel as its highly trained soldiers are lured by lucrative private security work.

With business of around £1bn, British companies are estimated to have the biggest share of private security contracts in Iraq. According to experts, between 1,200 and 1,500 former British soldiers and police officers, including former SAS, Marines, paratroopers and RUC officers, are working in Iraq. Some privately estimate that the total number of foreigners working for private security companies now exceeds the 8,700 British troops there.

Apart from the major US and British companies, dozens of small firms have set up shop in Iraq. Former British and American special forces members speak of their concern that smaller firms are hiring personnel with little experience with firearms and have no interest in setting out the circumstances in which their employees may use their weapons.

The presence of thousands of armed Westerners and others, including Gurkhas and Fijians, says much about America’s fear of military casualties. Security firms are escorting convoys. Armed men from an American company are guarding US troops at night inside the former presidential palace where Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, has his headquarters. When a US helicopter crashed near Fallujah last year, an American security firm took control of the area and began rescue operations.

Details of the number of companies here – there may be as many as 400 – are further complicated by the number of security firms that are subcontracted by larger companies on a daily or weekly basis. Larger companies such as Control Risks complain that many are unregistered and uninsured.

Much of the money being earned by British companies is coming from the British taxpayer. The Independent on Sunday has learnt that the Foreign Office and Department for International Development have spent nearly £25m on hiring private bodyguards, armed escorts and security advisers to protect their civil servants. That figure is set to increase sharply in July when sovereignty is handed over to an Iraqi administration.

The largest contract is with Control Risks, which has earned £23.5m. It employs about 120 staff to protect about 150 British officials and contractors.