UGANDA: Did Askar Security Lie about Recruits for Iraq?

Those knowledgeable with the cut-throat, multi-billion dollar global security contractors' business would not quickly dismiss the claims by Askar Security that it was asked by Kroll Associates and South African Coin Security to recruit thousands of Ugand

Those knowledgeable with the cut-throat, multi-billion dollar global security contractors' business would not quickly dismiss the claims by Askar Security that it was asked by Kroll Associates and South African Coin Security to recruit thousands of Ugandans for security work in Iraq and elsewhere.

Here is why. After swiftly winning the conventional war against the Iraqi army, the US Army and coalition partners, almost 160,000-strong, were stretched thin to breaking point and could not afford to provide security for important personnel such as point-man Paul Bremmer, let alone every Dick and Harry who wanted to set up shop in post-war Iraq. Accordingly, companies such as Bechtel International and Halliburton that won big multi-billion dollar rebuilding contracts in the oil-rich country were pointedly told to BYOA to "bring your own army". And the race was on for a privately trained army to roll into Iraq.

The bulk of security contractors personnel was made of former army and marines corps from the US and Britain, although with increasing demand, recruitment expanded to South Africa and as far as the north Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana, where many retired Indian soldiers live. Custer Battles, headquartered in McLean, Virginia, for example, hired Nepalese Gurkhas to guard Baghdad International Airport.

By November 2003, barely eight months after the invasion, there was an estimated 20 private security firms employing up to 15,000 private security contractors in Iraq protecting officials, supply convoys, oil wells, government buildings and private businesses, including banks. Some of the big players supplying private warriors included EOD Technologies, Omega Risk Solutions, Halliburton, DynCorp, Global Risk Strategies, Kroll Associates, SAS International, Special Operations Consulting, Blackwater, Edinburgh Risk Inc, and Armor Group. With business booming, a security contractor could make as much as $1000 a day tax-free for an array of duties.

As Iraqi insurgency became bolder, the demand for private security skyrocketed. In February 2004, using its front in Chile called Grupo Táctico, the American security firm Blackwater based in Moyock, North Carolina, airlifted 122 former Chilean military men to North Carolina for a quick two-week training at the Blackwater training camp before flying them to Kuwait, and finally to Iraq.

The Chileans were lured by the pay of as much as $4000 per month to guard oil wells in Iraq. However, the lucrative business of supplying private armies to Iraq hit a snag early last year when four American private security contractors working for Blackwater were ambushed and killed in broad daylight in Fallujah. It turned out that the four dead men were seasoned military veterans turned security contractors.

Jerry Zovko, 32, Mike Teague, 38, and Wesley Batalona, 48, were all experienced former US Army Rangers, while the handsome Scott Helvenston, 38, was a celebrated former NAVY SEAL with Hollywood connections.

How could this happen? In a lawsuit against Blackwater filed in North Carolina on January 6, 2005, the families of the dead men alleged that on March 30, 2004, Blackwater sent the men on a dangerous mission to escort food trucks to a US army base outside Falluja, then a hotbed of Sunni anti-American protests. However, "Blackwater intentionally and knowingly failed to provide them with the protections, tools and information that it initially represented", says the lawsuit. According to the lawsuit, the four men drove two unamoured Mitshubishi Pajeros, were armed with several light M-4 rifles, and were two men short of the required minimum of six.

Without a map, the experienced former soldiers got hopelessly lost in the desert, spent the night in a US camp, and the following morning drove straight into downtown Fallujah where, like sitting ducks, they were immediately set upon and shot at "point-blank range with AK-47". The details included in the lawsuit had the immediate impact of dampening the enthusiasm of would-be security contractors.

Many Americans and Britons grew reluctant to take on a job where death is just a car-wheel away.

Futhermore, with an estimated 500 to 1000 private security contractors believed killed in Iraq - the latest victims are Americans Todd Venette and Thomas Brandon working for CTU Consulting, killed on May 7 by a car-bomb in Baghdad -the job seemed suicidal.

However, because the demand for security contractors is higher than ever, international security firms are quietly turning to the developing nations, especially in Africa. For instance, the joint UK/South African security firm Erinys International has the enviable job of guarding oil sites and pipelines in Iraq for which it is being paid millions a day.

Naturally, South Africa has proven a rich recruiting ground where former apartheid soldiers and secret police officers are keen to get back into the security business for the money. Today, there is an estimated 5000-10000 South African private security personnel operating in Iraq. Recruiting Africans makes sense for two reasons. Foremost, experienced Africans will do the same job for far less money than Americans or Britons. Secondly, when they die in Iraq, as has happened to at least two dozen South Africans (the latest one being Jacques "Oosie" Oosthuize killed on May 3 near Tikrit while working for Erinys International), African families are less likely to launch wrongful death lawsuits.

A savvy international firm like Kroll Associates with its African branch in Johannesburg must be fully aware of the substantial profits to be made by recruiting educated, highly motivated Africans for less than half the going rate of hiring an American or Briton to do the same deadly work. Was Askar Security lying when it said the 700 men it recruited in Kampala last week were headed for Iraq? Probably not.

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