Pulling rank from ‘the Yanks’: the life of a Kiwi contractor in Iraq

NICKY HAGER speaks to a former NZSAS member working in a `Close Protection Team’

DOZENS OF New Zealanders are working for private companies in Iraq as violent opposition to the occupation forces spreads and the risks to foreigners grow. One of them, a former member of New Zealand’s Special Air Service, agreed to talk about his experiences and described the escalating conflict in which he and his colleagues are caught up.

The former NZSAS member, who asked to be identified as “Steve”, arrived in Iraq soon after the invasion and works mostly in the central region near Baghdad. He is young, likeable and speaks his mind plainly.

The world first became aware of the presence of foreign “civilian contractors” in Iraq seven weeks ago, when four Blackwater USA employees were killed in front of cameras in Fallujah.

The first Kiwi contractor to die, John Robert Tyrrell, who worked for a reconstruction firm, was killed in an ambush last week.

Steve says the situation in Iraq has become “a lot hotter” in recent weeks. “The [locals] are more pissed off than when I first got here_mainly because of the [prison] pictures. You see them running alongside the convoys pointing at the pictures [of prisoners] yelling abuse at us as we drive through. You just ignore those ones but keep an eye out for the ones who are armed.

“The threat’s definitely increased since the prison stories came out. I heard they topped a Yank, cut his head off or something yesterday. The Yanks are making it harder for themselves and every other bastard over here. How would I describe it? Really f—ing dangerous, especially lately.”

He said the situation continued to deteriorate and he planned to leave as soon as his contract expired. “I’ve had enough. The thing that pisses us off is the Yanks had no idea what to do after they’d taken out the Iraqi army. They rocked on in, took them out and then thought: `Oh shit, what do we do now?’

“Let’s just say that it ain’t over yet,” he said. “It’s going to get a hell of a lot worse than now. This is going to go on for years from what we can see over here. And tell you what, blame the Yanks not the Iraqis. They only want a decent life and a fair go.”

He says that so far he has avoided any injury. “We haven’t been hit but some of the other Mobile CPTs [Close Protection Teams] have. We got called in as support for one of the teams who got hit on the MSR [Main Supply Route] between Babil and Fallujah a few weeks ago. When we got there they had taken out maybe five or six [attackers] and pulled back in two of the vehicles a few clicks [kilo-metres]. They left three other vehicles behind. We went up to get them when we got there but of course they were burnt out and looted.”

“It’s all a bit weird,” he said. “Sort of a mixture of watching some full-on war movie like Black Hawk Down and being in the f—ing middle of it sometimes. Hard to describe really. Sometimes it all feels like a dream until you hear a big f—ing bang and then you wake up and you’re in this hole.”

Steve’s job is leading a CPT for a US company, part of a contract “to protect government officials and senior corporate type dudes”.

This includes bodyguard work and escorting convoys between and within the main cities. Asked how they do their job, he replied: “I don’t want to go into too much detail about that sort of stuff.”

Since the death of the Blackwater four, there has been extensive international discussion about the use of private military contractors. They are different to the unarmed security officers to which we are accustomed. Essentially, they are private military personnel_heavily armed and employing military tactics_providing services normally carried out by military forces.

A US media investigation last year identified more than 90 private military companies earning billions of dollars operating in 110 countries worldwide. The New York Times estimates there is now one contractor for every 10 soldiers in Iraq_and this proportion may increase dramatically as a US-backed Iraqi administration replaces the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

The concept of CPTs_like Steve’s_was developed by the British SAS in the 1960s and is an example of where military roles are being taken up by private companies.

For instance, British secretary of state Jack Straw told parliament in July last year that military CPTs protecting British sites in Baghdad and British CPA staff would be replaced soon after by contracts with “a UK-based private security firm”.

A US Marine Corps reservist in Iraq, working in a CPT for the CPA head in Basra, wrote on a military website last month about how there was no difference between the private contractors’ and military roles. He said Paul Bremer, the coalition administrator, had his own Blackwater close protection team, while the six regional CPA heads had military protection teams. “Any other coalition officials in Iraq are provided security by private contractors such as Blackwater, Global Security [and] Critical Response Group.”

Lots of former special forces military personnel like Steve move from continent to continent on a series of short-term contracts “doing the security circuit”. The work ranges from escorting pop stars to training third world armies and police forces to active fighting roles. Two New Zealanders, Alan Brosnan and Duke Henry, wrote about this life in their 2002 book Soldiering On, noting that since leaving the NZSAS in the late 1980s they had, between them, worked in 57 different countries. As the New York Times argued, this “out-sourcing of war” can create difficult issues around accountability. For instance, the New Zealand government refused to send combat troops to support the US-led occupation force in Iraq_but what responsibility does it have if some of the same troops, trained at public expense, quit and become part of the occupation force as private contractors?

Judging from the case of an NZSAS sergeant who resigned late last year to take up a private military job in Iraq, it is not discouraged.

The officer’s reference from land commander brigadier Southwell commented glowingly on the NZSAS sergeant’s assignment as principle protection officer for Foreign Minister Phil Goff on a visit to Afghanistan and said: “I have no hesitation in recommending [him] as a leader of a Close Protection Team in even the most severe of security situations.”

Insiders say there is frequent contact between overseas private military firms and the NZSAS headquarters, including representatives of these companies visiting the Papakura base to look for recruits.

New Zealand Defence Force spokesman Ric Cullinane said unless they fought against New Zealand_which is treason_or commit an international crime, once members of the armed forces leave, “the NZDF capacity to place restrictions on them ceases”.

Acting police commissioner Steve Long said there was no policy restricting where former police officers worked.

Steve, the former NZSAS member, says he doesn’t know how many Kiwi security contractors there are in Iraq, but it’s “less than 100 for sure”.

“There are a few ex-SAS guys over here like me but they keep pretty quiet. The ones that make the most noise are the grunts [infantry soldiers] who have talked their way into a contract.”

He’s also heard about “some Kiwi cops over here. I think they are doing close protection contracts.” Recently, Police Minister George Hawkins said three police officers had resigned after being discovered taking leave to do secur-ity contracts in Iraq. He said a “small number” of other officers had also left to take up such work.

A Hamilton company, Red Key Security Group, hit the headlines this year when it received hundreds of applicants for bodyguard jobs in Iraq. Manager Terry Phelan says owing to conditions in Iraq_including foreign construction companies pulling out_Red Key’s plans to place New Zealanders in Iraq are on hold for at least three months.

Asked about the treatment of locals by coalition troops or private contractors, Steve said: “Most of what I’ve seen, any prisoners of war are treated OK, rough but OK.” He said they were “normally taken away pretty quickly for safety/security reasons but I can’t say that I’ve seen much dodgy.

“The private companies don’t really get into dealing with the locals on a threatening level. We try to be as nice as we can ’cause you don’t know who’s going to shoot at you. You stay awake but try not to be overly aggressive.

“My team’s good but there are starting to be a lot of cowboys in now because a few of the experienced ones are getting out. Some of the companies over here have people with f— all military training.

“That’s when it’ll get real bad. When the experienced people leave because it’s too hot, the inexperienced — or should that be `unexperienced’ — come in and get their heads done in. That’ll happen, sooner rather than later.”