The four American civilian security workers brutally killed and mutilated in Fallouja on Wednesday were among thousands of ex-soldiers and others who work in the murky universe of private security firms operating in Iraq, frequently outside the control of the U.S. military or any Iraqi authority.
Along with Blackwater USA, the elite North Carolina company that employed the victims of the Fallouja violence, more than 35 other security companies from around the globe employ an estimated 15,000 private security workers in Iraq. Dozens more companies are competing for lucrative contracts here.
The security firms operate in a world where the military, the intelligence community and private companies merge. Many of the employees once served in elite units such as the Navy SEALs or Army Green Berets.
Their clients, activities and even the names of employees are largely kept from public view. Security experts estimate that dozens of the heavily armed security workers have been killed since entering Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell last April.
The vast majority of their work in Iraq is government-funded, either through direct contracts with government agencies or indirectly as security for firms that have contracts to help rebuild Iraq.
Blackwater’s most high-profile client also is arguably the biggest target for insurgents: L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq. On Blackwater’s website is a photo of a man who appears to be Bremer standing next to a German shepherd and the dog’s handler.
Despite and in large part because of the continuing violence in Iraq, the private security industry is lucrative here. “This place is the biggest job expo going in the security world. If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it,” said a security expert in Iraq who is working with a firm under government contract.
Business is booming, security experts said, because a surge in violence has come precisely as a flood of contractors is poised to roll into the country now that $8 billion in U.S. contracts have been awarded.
“Unless it’s some nickel-and-dime American company that’s wormed its way in here, every company has some security apparatus set up,” said one security expert in Baghdad.
Unlike such hotspots as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo or Haiti, where international forces stepped in to maintain order, Iraq peacekeeping duties have been handled mainly by the U.S.-led coalition with the help of a growing number of Iraqi police and army officers.
With the U.S. military spread out over the vast expanse of Iraq and attacks on foreign workers mounting, private firms have helped fill the gap to protect civilian contractors.
“We need to come face to face with the reality that we are incredibly dependent on private contractors, but the government is in no way equipped to operate either as a smart client or as an efficient regulator,” said P.W. Singer, a Brookings Institution military analyst and author of “Corporate Warriors,” a book on private military companies.
“You’ve basically got a chaotic situation, and you’ve got a huge number of contractors that lie outside the chain of command and outside established systems and legal controls,” Singer said.
But there has been no suggestion that the security companies have done anything questionable in Iraq. Many security experts note that because the best firms use former elite service members, their work is at least as good as that of regular troops, most of whom are less well trained.
Though security firms say the gruesome events in Fallouja will not detract from business, the killings have had an effect on other private contractors.
On Thursday, the sponsors of a major Baghdad conference intended to kick off the latest round of rebuilding in Iraq announced that they were postponing the event indefinitely because of security concerns.
The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority had been promoting the conference as a way to bring together job-seeking Iraqis and large U.S., British and other corporations that recently won construction contracts.
But the Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce & Industry, the La Crescenta-based group sponsoring the event, decided to postpone it after the Fallouja attack and a State Department warning Wednesday against travel to the conference.
Meanwhile, “security companies are still fighting to get into Iraq,” said Doug Brooks, president of International Peace Operations Assn., a Washington lobbying group that represents several major security firms.
These days, almost every Western organization working in Iraq has private security. Security firms escort executives in and out of the country and provide secure accommodations in guarded compounds. They assess sites where Westerners are doing reconstruction work -- from electricity plants to military bases -- and determine how many guards are needed to protect the premises and work force.
They escort convoys of supplies. And some are preparing elaborate tracking systems so that if a contractor’s vehicle runs into trouble, its occupants can be located and rescued.
For months, the presence of security firms has been hard to ignore. Their large four-wheel-drive vehicles whiz along highways, traveling well over 100 mph to discourage insurgents from tailing them. They pull out of heavily fortified compounds and careen into traffic, forcing other vehicles out of their way.
The Western security experts are easily identified. They are muscular men, often wearing flak jackets and conspicuously carrying MP-5 submachine guns -- a German-made weapon favored by special operations forces. They tuck revolvers into leg holsters.
Experts estimate that the thousands of security professionals in the country probably outnumber workers in any other private industry. They include large numbers of Nepalese Gurkhas, who guard many of the coalition’s headquarters in the Iraqi provinces, and former South African soldiers.
But at the top the pay scale are American and British security workers who are former Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Marines, Special Operations soldiers, CIA workers, British Special Air Services members and British Royal Marines. Many have worked with intelligence units in their former services and continue to have access to information unavailable to civilians.
Blackwater, for example, was founded by former Navy SEAL Gary Jackson and includes many former commandos in its top ranks. A company spokesman said 70% of its trainees come from the military, mainly from commando units.
The firm’s business has been booming since the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Two years ago, it signed a $35.7-million contract with the Pentagon to train more than 10,000 soldiers in force protection at the firm’s 6,000-acre training range in Moyock, N.C.
Government staffers who have trained there include Special Operations units from nearby Ft. Bragg, the U.S. Coast Guard, harbor security services and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Other top firms operating in Iraq include Chicago-based Triple Canopy Inc.; San Francisco-based Steele Foundation; New York-based Kroll Inc.; El Segundo-based DynCorp; and the British firm Control Risk Group.
A primary appeal to security workers is the money. The best paid of the private security staffers -- the most experienced and elite former soldiers -- earn as much as $20,000 a month, security experts in Iraq say.
Most Western contractors rely on Iraqi subcontractors for almost all labor. Security firms, on the other hand, make heavy use of workers from outside Iraq.
The deep experience of the guards goes into the sales pitch offered by security firms -- that the prospective client is in a treacherous setting but will be getting the best protection. But sometimes no amount of experience or expertise is enough.
“How many private security guys have been killed here? A lot,” said one security expert in Baghdad. “At least 50, maybe more; there’s been six just this week.”
Times staff writer T. Christian Miller in Washington contributed to this report.