/ 11 June 2007

A price too high?

They are members of a hidden army who inhabit a curious in-between world. Tough, heavily-armed private security guards who love the adrenalin buzz of rubbing along with high-flying businesspeople and contractors. Blue collar workers trying to make a quick buck or do their bit for the cause are thrown together with poorly paid cooks, cleaners and laundry workers from across the globe.

This is the world of a foreign legion working, living, surviving, in what has become the most dangerous country in the world.

There are almost as many of them as there are American soldiers. But there is no safety in numbers here. The recent kidnap of four private security guards and a finance expert in Baghdad by what is suspected to have been a rogue faction of the Mahdi army shows just how hazardous Iraq is becoming for foreign workers. The SAS [UK special forces] is waiting to intervene, but nothing has been heard from the kidnappers since the hostages were taken from the city’s finance ministry by men dressed in police uniform.

New statistics released by the United States labour department reveal that in the first three months of this year 146 contract workers were killed in Iraq. More than 900 have been killed since March 2003. But still they go; neither soldiers nor citizens; putting their lives on the line, hiding in secure compounds when not dodging bullets and trying to avoid deadly roadblocks and explosive devices as they go about their business.

A few may be there through feelings of duty or to try to make a difference, and some because their bosses have told them to be. But for most the lure of cash outweighs fear of injury and death. For Mike, a finance expert from south-east England who works in the London office of a multinational company, the offer of six weeks in Baghdad had two attractions: great money and adventure.

He said: ”I don’t want to say what I earned. Let’s say it was better than my last bonus and I’m having a pool and tennis court built on the back of it.”

Mike’s time in Iraq earlier this year was spent largely in the secure international zone. Most meetings were held within the protected enclave. ”I found it quite suffocating, really. I was living in a villa with a bunch of other guys.”

He added: ”I went on training courses before I went out, but I was unprepared. Being in the city was the most scary. There was this awful feeling that one false move, and that could be it.”

Mark Whyte is one of those whose business it is to protect people like Mike. He is operations director of the British firm Pilgrims Group, which provides security for the media and the oil and gas sector, and has been working in and out of Baghdad since March 2003, employing­ 60 ex- SAS soldiers from Britain and New Zealand and 200 Iraqis.

”The typical wage for an expat special forces guy is £400 a day. An expat infantry soldier on an escort convoy, based in the Green Zone and working outside of it maybe earns £175 a day,” he explains. ”But we have passed the high water mark of requirement for people. Maximum demand was 2005/2006 but the need for numbers has tailed off since because the big reconstruction projects have stopped, or never started in the first place. There has been a switch, with American companies employing a lot of third-country nationals because they are cheaper.”

Pilgrims does not have a high turnover of staff, he says, and most are employed by personal referral. ”We get 100 CVs a week from all over the world and almost all are unsuitable. We get our people through word of mouth.”

The abduction of the private security guards, working for Canadian company GardaWorld, has reverberated across the whole industry. ”I think there is a reduction in the number of companies expressing an interest in going into Iraq. It costs between $10 000 and $15 000 a day for an eight-man security team.”

But not everyone doing the same job is on the same money. ”They have got a rate for South Africans, a rate for Filipinos, a rate for Gurkhas and a rate for Colombians. Third-country nationals don’t get paid as much as expats.”

Some workers find it difficult to get home. In March, the International Organisation of Migration rescued five Sri Lankans who said they had been taken to Iraq to work as cleaners against their will. They told of 16-hour days, seven days a week, labouring away for as little as $100 a month. IOM rescued 17 other Sri Lankans in February.

”Although IOM has evacuated close to 7 000 migrants from Iraq over the past four years, with financial support from the US government, recent developments indicate we are witnessing new patterns of exploitation emerging,” said spokesperson Vincent Houver.

Of those who come of their own free will, many discover the price is too high. Gordon Dreher is one of the many blue collar workers who have been servicing coalition troops. The 43-year-old from Brick, New Jersey, spent two and a half years as a field truck driver based in Nasiriyah, south-east of Baghdad, helping to supply US troops. He signed up to earn money but also to serve his country in the aftermath of September 11. This week he will undergo an operation for an injured back, hurt while driving a fuel truck too quickly along Iraqi roads. ”I got used to being shot at. I had an improvised explosive device go off a few feet from me,” he said.

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Washington thinktank the Council on Foreign Relations, found Baghdad surreal. ”Everyone was carrying weapons, even in the international zone. It was a weird combination of Club Med and Mad Max. There’s a big pool with tables around it. So people are in swimsuits but carrying submachine guns.” — Â