Iraq's mercenary forces

After two charred American corpses were hung from a bridge in Fallujah, the shadowy world of governm

Secrecy still surrounds the thousands of contracted soldiers who protect anything from US Ambassadors to shipments required for the rebuilding effort as they operate outside both Iraqi and US law.

The number of companies and the number of employees being paid by the US government to operate in Iraq are unknown though Steve Fainaru, who wrote Big Boy Rules, a book about the mercenaries, estimates there are currently more than 300.

There is almost no governmental oversight and no record of how many injuries or deaths the companies cause or incur. When hired soldiers are killed on the job, the companies are not required to follow the same procedures the military does; investigations are unofficial and the families are often not informed, Fainaru claims. Nor is financial compensation mandatory.

Some companies are poorly organised and unprepared for defending vulnerable targets. Fainaru called the Crescent Security Group, which he was embedded with, the “Kmart of private security”.

In his book he notes the lack of basic medical supplies like tourniquets and morphine and criticised the sort of vehicles they were deployed in questioning the effectiveness of their armour plating.

The lack of accountability of the contractors, which gained public attention after apparently unprovoked Blackwater employees killed 17 people in Nisoor Square, makes the international community uneasy.

“The public is very suspicious. There is an incredible lack of regulation. There are thousands of people under no legal system. That is problematic at best,” says Fainaru.

But who would volunteer to work for companies that are not limited or protected by any government amid all the dangers of Iraq?

Fainaru found that the contracted soldiers enrolled for quick money and adrenaline rushes. The high pay - between 7,000 to 20,000 US dollars a month - was a motivating factor says Fainaru. “It's incredibly dangerous work so it is market price” he says.

In total, “The US government has spent $6 billion on 300 private companies. Security was Iraq’s growth industry,” explained Fainaru.

Some of the 'mercs' as they call themselves signed up for the excitement. Many had done tours in Iraq with the US army and found civilian life meaningless. Fainaru was able to relate. After being in Iraq, “It's like looking through a weird prism – everything else is boring.”

In the end though, many of the contractors didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Some witnessed incredible brutality. Five of the Crescent Group were kidnapped in November 2006 and their deaths were confirmed 16 months later.

Fainaru sees a parallel between the unexpected chaos that hired soldiers encountered with the experience of the US government. “It’s symbolic. The US government went in without a plan, a sense of history, or the complexity. It was the ultimate tragedy.”

Despite his criticisms of the companies, Fainaru believes that the contractors are essential. The army is not large enough to fight and protect the reconstruction effort, he says. But contractors should only be used in specific circumstances. “We should use them judiciously for security and peacekeeping. We can’t have them running around on the battlefield.”

Rules, especially regarding violence, are hard to enforce in Iraq says Fainaru. “Iraq is what it is – an incredibly dangerous place. The contracted soldiers have every right to return fire.”