THE suicide car bomber detonated his device between the first and second vehicles of the convoy from the American Army Corps of Engineers.
From the wreckage it looked as if nobody would get out alive - especially when they came under small-arms fire from gunmen at the side of the road.
But the engineers did escape. Their British-trained escorts went into a well-rehearsed routine, getting the shattered armoured vehicles through to a passing US military patrol with only two of the escorts suffering broken arms. From the US engineers' perspective, this was security money well spent.
The incident near Mosul in northern Iraq in May involved the British company Erinys and was just one of hundreds of unreported events in Iraq that have helped to push the booming private-security industry into the spotlight. Once thought of as little better than mercenaries, Britain's private-security firms are now seen by many as valued and legitimate businesses.
Not everyone agrees: some MPs are keen to bring the burgeoning industry to heel, with plans for government regulation due to be put before parliament early next year.
In the time-honoured fashion of British businesses faced with government intervention, about 21 UK-based companies are preparing to start their own trade organisation - as the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC). A formal launch is expected in January.
"We will have a charter and standards," said Andy Bearpark, the first director-general of the BAPSC. "We want regulations - preferably our own, but we want to work with the government on this. We want to provide the highest level of assurance - an ISO 9000 sort of standard - that customers can rely on. This is a big and increasingly important industry. The old days are gone."
The "old days" were those of the 1970s and 1980s when companies such as South Africa-based Executive Outcomes conducted mercenary operations across Africa and Asia, and when Sandline International brought South African mercenaries into Papua New Guinea to help quell an uprising.
Seven years ago, in the "arms to Africa" affair, Sandline broke a UN arms embargo to help re-establish Ahmad Tejan Kabbah as president of Sierra Leone. The leader of the operation, Lt Col Tim Spicer, a former Scots Guards officer,claimed he had done nothing illegal, and that the British government tacitly supported him.
Today Spicer is chairman and chief executive of London-based Aegis Defence Services, which oversees the estimated 35,000 private-security personnel in Iraq through some $400m (Â£225m) in US government contracts, the largest the Pentagon has ever given for private security. He has dropped the phrase "Private Military Companies", which suggests an attack capability, in favour of "Private Security Companies", which is entirely defensive.
Despite heavy criticism from Americans about his getting the Iraq contract, which oversees all US private-security contracts there, the old "mercenary" welcomes regulation.
"Iraq has been a bit of a catalyst," he told The Sunday Times. "The industry has matured and the consensus feeling is that regulation is coming.
It's a good thing for an industry such as ours to want to have a say in that. The BAPSC will be a collective voice of our industry to engage government."
There are no detailed estimates of just how big and profitable the industry has become in the past few years, except that a figure used by ArmorGroup, one of Britain's largest private-security companies, shows the worldwide market rising from $900m in 2003 to $1.7 billion in 2004. British industry officials estimate that it will be slightly higher this year, and will continue to rise even as Iraqis take over more security in their own country.
"Given the cost of defence today, this trend is likely to continue. There just aren't enough troops available to do everything," said Christopher Langton, editor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual Military Balance report published last week. "The debate is about accountability. That has still to be worked out."
Since 2003 the demand for private security guards in Iraq has been so great - from guarding oil pipelines to VIP protection - that many companies have started from scratch, and there are huge variations in the standards of recruitment and training. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed or injured in what are usually described as defensive actions by private security guards as the spectre of unaccountable mercenaries hangs over the country.
Private security personnel provide the second-largest western armed force in Iraq after the Americans, according to Bearpark. British private-security operators there total more than the 8,500 troops in the British Army around Basra. Aegis alone employs about 2,000; London-based Global Risk Strategies also has about 2,000 there, with another 500 elsewhere. Erinys has 400, 160 of them being South Africans.
Some are former British, Australian, South African or American special forces, but most are former regular soldiers who have gone to Iraq for salaries five times what they were earning in the service.
Maj-Gen John Holmes, a former director of British Special Forces and now a director of Erinys, said: "British companies have taken the lion's share of the world's private-security business in recent years, largely because they have an outstanding reputation. Our reputation is vital to us, so we would welcome some form of national regulation that sets out standards, provided it does not adversely affect our ability to compete in a growing world market."
Bearpark, a former official at the Department for International Development with extensive experience in British reconstruction efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, added: "Anyone recruited by companies in the BAPSC must meet basic minimum standards. We would want everyone recruited, at a minimum, to have had train- ing in the Geneva Convention."
It is uncertain whether the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) plans to require all British private-security companies to be licensed, with the licence removed if they breach certain standards, or whether it wants to review all foreign contract bids, much as the Defence Export Services Organisation does for equipment sales overseas. Peter January, the FCO official drawing up the new law, declined to discuss it last week.
The BAPSC tends to favour licensing, according to Bearpark, in the way the British Medical Association controls its members. Contract oversight, he said, was likely to be too slow because overseas security contracts, almost by definition, tended to be urgent and could be lost to a competitor.
Whatever government regulation comes in, the British companies are anxious to avoid the anti-mercenary precedent being proposed by the South African government. A draft version, seen by The Sunday Times, would appear to ban all 655 South Africans currently in the British Army if they go into an area of armed conflict such as Iraq, and would ban all South Africans from working as private security agents anywhere outside their home country.
Yet it appears to allow them to fight for national liberation, self-determination, independence against colonialism or "resistance against occupation, aggression or domination by alien or foreign forces".
British industry officials, heavily dependent on South African security personnel, interpret this as meaning that the South Africans are banned from fighting for British interests in Iraq, but can fight against them in Al-Qaeda.
Still to be worked out for the BAPSC are legal definitions, not least their name. David Dickinson, chief executive of the British Security Industry Association, which represents some 570 companies in Britain ranging from CCTV manufacturers to wheel clampers, said he was "deeply concerned" at the possibility of confusion because his private-security company members had nothing to do with armed "overseas military-type services".
Key UK players
AEGIS DEFENCE SERVICES
Chief executive: Lt Col Tim Spicer, who owns 40%
Turnover: 2003 Â£0.6m; 2004 Â£15.1m
Contracts in Iraq involve civil/military co-ordination, force protection and training of Iraqi security
Non-exec chairman: Sir Malcolm Rifkind
Turnover: 2003 $99m; 2004 $119m
Employs 7,800 people in 28 countries. Protective security and training, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan
CONTROL RISKS GROUP
Chairman: Jonathan Fry
Turnover: 2003 Â£47m; 2004 Â£80m
Security consultants and civil-service guarding worldwide. 385 employees in 19 countries.
GLOBAL RISK STRATEGIES (UK)
Chief executive: Damien Perl
Turnover: 2003 Â£2.2m; 2004: Â£1.3m
Primary contract is security in Afghanistan and at Baghdad International Airport
- 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign