Outsourcing the Occupation

"Our men train military personnel, train pilots to land airplanes, escort food and supply convoys, and provide protection for Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority." Sound like an advertisement for the U.S. military? In fact, these are the words of a spokesman for Blackwater Security Consulting, a private security firm based in North Carolina, describing the role of his employees in the occupation of Iraq. It gives new meaning to the phrase "a private war."

Blackwater hit the headlines in late March 2004, when four Americans were killed, burned and dismembered in the turbulent northern town of Fallujah. Media reports described them as "civilian contractors" who were "protecting food shipments"; it later transpired that they were four of around 450 Blackwater employees on the ground in Iraq, who, along with other private firms, are playing a central role in the coalition's war effort.

The killings in Fallujah brought to the world's attention the mercenary phenomenon in Iraq. The coalition has contracted thousands of private military personnel from companies such as Blackwater, to do everything from feeding and housing coalition troops to maintaining key weapons systems, including M-1 tanks, Apache helicopters and B-2 stealth bombers, to providing armed protection to leading coalition officials. Such personnel are mostly ex-soldiers, from American, British, South African, European and other armies, who now make up to $1800 a day offering their skills and services to the private sector.

An estimated 15 to 20,000 of them are currently in Iraq -- and as one report points out, that is a greater number of men than provided by any other American ally, including Britain.

In some parts of Iraq, including the hostile Sunni triangle in the north, private military personnel have been at the forefront of the occupation. According to one report, they have become the most visible part of the occupation, often running high-risk operations that the American and British military would rather not do; and therefore, to some Iraqis, they have become "the most hated and humiliating aspect of the ... occupation."

Private personnel have borne the brunt of much of the Iraqi anger over the past two weeks. One report says "the ubiquity of heavily armed foreigners partly explains why so many people are being kidnapped in Iraq;" many of the "civilians" killed and kidnapped in hostile towns such as Fallujah in the north and Najaf in the south in the past 10 days have been private military personnel.

Why has the coalition contracted a private army of ex-soldiers, in the pay of profit-making security firms, to execute aspects of the occupation? Why is it increasingly relying on private guards, who are not subject to the coalition's chain of command and who can up and leave whenever they please?

Some claim the coalition is intensifying the occupation, creating a fearsome vanguard of toughs from around the globe; others that it is "privatizing the war" in order to make up numbers on the ground -- both the U.S. and British armies have shrunk over the past 10 years and are currently stretched, from Haiti to Afghanistan to the Philippines. Some on the American left argue that the rise of a private military complex shows the "jobs for the boys" mentality of the Bush administration, which is providing security contracts to "politically connected" firms.

These considerations may have impacted on the nature and number of private military personnel in Iraq. But fundamentally, the use of private firms in the war and occupation points to problems within the coalition. By outsourcing the occupation, the coalition is trying to distance itself from the political consequences of its actions, in effect creating a buffer between its war and what happens as a result.

The coalition seems to want to occupy Iraq without physically having to occupy it, concentrating its troops in Baghdad and on the outskirts of hostile towns and cities while pushing hired guns to execute risky tasks, including protecting America's main man on the ground. What the coalition may have gained in political distance, however, it has paid for in terms of logistical coherence on the ground.

According to Peter W Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, the number of private military personnel in Iraq is "unprecedented," in both scale and scope. Singer tracked the development of the private military sphere over the past 10 years for his authoritative book "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military," published earlier this year. He notes that private firms have played an increasingly central role in war zones around the world since the end of the Cold War, but says that something bigger is happening in Iraq. "We have never seen numbers this high," he tells me. "We're talking somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 private personnel, and that is expected to rise to 30,000 when the coalition hands over power to Iraqis on 30 June."

Singer says the U.S. and British military have for the past 10 years used private military personnel to "protect military installations, escort convoys, things like that -- usually in war zones that the great powers didn't really care about, like Sierra Leone." But in Iraq, the big, defining global issue of today, private personnel have become central to the war and occupation effort.

"We're talking about people using military training and weapons to carry out military functions within a war zone," says Singer. "Some refer to them as "security guards;" but they aren't like security guys in the shopping mall. Some of these firms have been given airport security contracts in Iraq, and airport security in Baghdad doesn't mean watching bags go through the x-ray machine -- it means hiring ex-Green Berets to defend the airport against mortar attack."

Singer points out that traditional U.S. military doctrine held that civilians accompanying U.S. forces abroad should not be put into roles where they had to carry or use weapons (although they were allowed to carry small pistols in "extraordinary circumstances"), and that "mission-critical" roles should strictly be kept within the military itself. "But in Iraq, the private guys are heavily armed," he says. "They have guns, helicopters, everything. And they are carrying out mission-critical operations, including military support, military training and advice, and tactical military roles. They are even protecting Bremer, and you can't get more mission-critical than that. So much has been handed over; basically we have a system where it's not civilians accompanying the force, but civilians who are an essential part of the force."

This has become apparent over the past two weeks, as private contractors have clashed with armed Iraqis. Much of the fighting in the north and south and in parts of Baghdad has been between Iraqis and coalition troops, leaving an estimated 500 Iraqis and 30 Americans dead. In some parts of the country, however, private military personnel have been left to fight their own battles -- and the coalition's.

According to the Washington Post, on Apr. 5 eight commandos from Blackwater "repulsed an attack by the militiamen of Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr against the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters in Najaf." Apparently, the Blackwater employees spent hours calling the U.S. military and CPA for back-up, but to no avail. Blackwater had to send in its own helicopters, twice, to deliver ammunition to its employees.

On Apr. 6, the home of five private contractors employed by the London-based Hart Group Ltd came under fire from Iraqis in Kut. The five defended their home for two days -- one was killed, bleeding to death after being shot; the other four were wounded. Apparently, the Hart employees called U.S. and Ukrainian military forces so many times during the two-day siege that "the battery on their mobile phone ran out."

"We were holding out, hoping to get direct military support that never came," said Nick Edmunds, Hart's Iraq coordinator. Other private military personnel have been wounded or killed and some kidnapped, while defending their own posts or coalition buildings and property.

Now, the Washington Post claims that private security firms, "unable to rely on U.S. and coalition troops for intelligence or help under duress...have begun to band together, organising what may be the largest private army in the world, with its own rescue teams and pooled, sensitive intelligence."

Defending coalition buildings and defending themselves with no back up from coalition forces -- it seems that in some parts of Iraq, private military personnel are not so much accompanying the coalition and providing it with back-up as substituting for it. Coalition forces have abandoned private military personnel in some hotspots, leaving them to maintain some semblance of control.

As we watch private contractors fighting against Iraqis, getting kidnapped and in some cases killed, Singer says we could be forgiven for asking: Whose occupation is this? "Instead of questioning the mission, the public were probably trying to figure out just who exactly was performing the mission in the first place," he says.

Where private military personnel in the past were generally not armed and certainly not used for mission-critical operations, today, in Iraq, there are thousands of them, most with guns, and some apparently fighting the coalition's corner. "Yes," says Singer, "there has been a severe blurring of the lines between civilian and military forces in Iraq."

Why has the coalition privatized so much? Singer believes it is more for political reasons than practical ones. He doesn't buy the argument put forward by some, that the use of private firms is a money-saving technique. "There is no single study that has proven that the use of private military contractors saves on the costs of the occupation." He does believe, however, that the shrinking and stretching of the U.S. and British military over the past decade has been key in forcing a turn towards the private sphere. "The U.S. military is 35 percent smaller than it was during the last Gulf War; it is also deployed in places like Afghanistan, Haiti, Uzbekistan, and so on. The British military is the smallest it has been since the Napoleonic wars. Private forces are filling the space."

But he thinks political considerations have been the main motivation. "There is an attempt to displace the political costs of the operation, and those political costs include everything from having to call up more regular forces, which the American military in particular does not want to do, to avoiding suffering casualties. Between 30 and 50 private contractors have been killed, and a lot more are captured right now. Can you imagine the controversy if actual U.S. marines were being held hostage? There is a desire to offset the controversies associated with war."

These considerations no doubt impact on the coalition's thinking in Iraq -- but there is more to the privatization of the occupation than a desire to avoid casualties. The "handing over" of more responsibilities to the private sector, the unprecedented use of thousands of armed civilians to operate in hostile towns and cities, the overriding question of "who exactly is performing this mission?," fit into the coalition's curious style of occupation.

America and Britain's domination of Iraq often looks like an occupation-in-denial; the coalition may have thousands of troops in Iraq, but it has little desire to exercise political control, or even political responsibility, over Iraq's present or future. Its occupation has a hands-off feel, where a huge military presence can coexist with political cautiousness and a desire to stand above events on the ground. In much of Iraq, coalition forces are all but invisible.

While the occupation has proved fatal for many Iraqis over the past year, particularly protesting Iraqis, it has not been an all-out military clampdown on Iraq's towns and cities. Much of the occupation has been conducted from behind high walls or from helicopter gunships. One report describes how hundreds of American troops spend their time in Saddam's old palaces, or guarding the "Green Zone" in the centre of Baghdad, a cordoned-off part of the city centre, massively guarded and for the exclusive use of coalition officials, only occasionally venturing out on missions.

A recent poll asked Iraqis what they thought of the coalition forces -- 77 percent said they had never had an encounter with a member of the coalition forces. Coalition forces have stayed on the outskirts of some cities, in particular Fallujah and Najaf - which is one reason why private contractors have been left to defend themselves, and coalition buildings, in those cities over the past two weeks.

The outsourcing of so many responsibilities to private firms looks like being part of this strange occupation -- an attempt to create a distance between the coalition's actions in Iraq and the consequences of its actions, between its physical occupation and the political ramifications of the occupation. This is best summed up in the person of Paul Bremer -- America's "administrator" in Iraq (not its high commissioner, note), who surrounds himself with armed men trained by Blackwater in North Carolina and whose main job is to ensure the nominal handover of power to an Iraqi administration on 30 June.

The end result of this frantic outsourcing of responsibility is logistical and political confusion on the ground, which has come to a head over the past two weeks -- where no one seems to know who controls which cities, or why.

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