In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the role of private security contractors in Iraq has come under increasing scrutiny.
There was widespread surprise, therefore, when the US Army announced in June that it was to award a major security contract to Aegis Defense Services, the company run by British mercenary Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Spicer. Under the US$293 million deal, Aegis will coordinate the work of up to 50 other private security companies in Iraq, and provide security teams for the US Project Management Office.
The deal faces opposition on a number of fronts. Rival US military contractor Dyncorp has submitted a formal protest to the US Congress's Government Accountability Office over the way the contract was awarded. More widespread concerns center on Spicer's past involvement in a number of conflict zones.
In the late 1990s, he was a director of Sandline, the company that contravened a United Nations embargo to ship 30 tons of arms into Sierra Leone during that country's civil war. He later said he had acted with British government approval, a claim that threatened to bring down Prime Minister Tony Blair for some weeks in 1998.
A year earlier, Spicer's involvement in Papua New Guinea had led to the downfall of a prime minister. His arrival in the country with 60 mercenaries hired to end the rebellion in Bougainville instead provoked a military revolt that ousted Sir Julius Chan.
But it may not be Spicer's mercenary career that provokes the most serious opposition to the Aegis deal in Washington, but his British military record. Irish-Americans are actively campaigning against the contract because of Spicer's role as commanding officer of the Scots Guards in Belfast in 1992, when two of his soldiers shot dead 18-year-old Peter McBride.
The killers, Mark Wright and James Fisher, were convicted of murder, but were released early and allowed to rejoin their regiment after a lobbying campaign in which Spicer featured prominently.
"Despite numerous court rulings that held that the soldiers under his command murdered an unarmed 18-year-old boy and concocted lies to cover up their actions, Spicer has continued to claim that his soldiers should not have been prosecuted," said a spokesman for Irish human-rights group the Pat Finucane Center. "By his own admission he wanted to send Guardsmen Wright and Fisher back on patrol immediately after the murder."
The US decision to work with Spicer prompted an emotional appeal to Irish-Americans last month from the dead man's mother, Jean McBride. "We are asking our supporters in the US to raise this directly with [Democratic presidential candidate] John Kerry and call for a congressional hearing into Tim Spicer's track record," she said. "Given the involvement of private security firms in torture and murder in Iraq I shudder to think that Spicer has been awarded a contract to create the world's largest private army. As commanding officer of the Scots Guards he told a pack of lies about Peter's murder and dragged his name through the dirt. God knows what his own private army will do in Iraq."
McBride's plea has now been answered by the Capitol Hill-based Irish National Caucus (INC). "This issue is our kind of issue: Should US dollars be subsidizing a contractor with a record of human-rights violation in Northern Ireland? And we mean to raise ructions about it," INC president Father Sean McManus said.
On July 21, McManus raised the issue during a briefing at the State Department by Mitchell Reiss, President George W Bush's envoy for Northern Ireland. "Dr Reiss acknowledged he had concerns about the contract," McManus said.
McManus has also written to Bush, Kerry and other members of Congress. "We are calling on them to denounce the awarding of the contract to Spicer and demanding that it be canceled," he said. "We are determined to make this an election issue. This contract is dripping in the blood of young McBride. Irish-Americans can't have this on their conscience. It is an outrage against the Irish and long-suffering Iraq. Ireland did not need Spicer, and Iraq certainly does not need the likes of him."
Concerns about the potential political fallout from the Spicer contract have, ironically, led the British government to distance itself from the deal. For one thing, new publicity around the McBride case can only highlight the British decision to send two convicted murderers, Guardsmen Wright and Fisher, to take part in the occupation of Iraq.
With the coalition's human-rights record already under scrutiny, that fact may prove a most uncomfortable one.