Another Road to Hell
I haven't been this frightened in a car since 1992, going to the Sarajevo airport in a painfully slow Toyota Corolla diesel. Chris Rea's "Road to Hell" on the stereo didn't help, but Guns & Roses' "Paradise City" made the trip back to town slightly less horrific. Now I'm north of Baghdad, Guns & Roses is still the music of choice, and "Welcome to the Jungle" seems very appropriate. The private security operators near me show no signs of surprise when a fuel truck detonates a few hundred meters ahead of us. The lead, or "scout" vehicle of our convoy moves forward through the large cloud of thick black smoke covering the road. "Cleared smoke," comes over the radio. The team leader, in the second escort vehicle, acknowledges and the rest of the convoy starts moving forward into the darkness.
Three people in the gun turret is one too many, especially when one is a photographer. No matter where I stand I'm blocking the view and fire sectors of the operators. I use an extreme wide-angle lens to get a useable image, and try not to think about what could happen if we come under fire. The next day we come under fire. A hundred or so AK-47 rounds hit our convoy. We have been stationary on the highway because of a broken-down truck for more than 20 minutes, in plain view of a small village. More than enough time for insurgents to improvise an attack. We have become a target of opportunity.
One of the four armored escort vehicles moves along the convoy on the exposed side, checking for casualties and damage to vehicles. An unarmored truck has several bullet impacts and a badly shaken but unhurt driver. "Move, move, move! Get them moving," the team leader urges over the radio. After a few long minutes of hectic improvised repairs, the convoy is again moving towards its destination, a U.S. military base in northern Iraq. None of the 16 heavily-armed security operators in the four armored pickup trucks with gun turrets on the back have fired a shot.
It doesn't always work according to plan. At least 30 ArmorGroup operators have died in Iraq in 2006. "They're supposed to be there in half an hour, but frequently they arrive much later or not at all," says Karl "Paddy" Moore, who retired after 16 years in the Royal Marines to work in Iraq. He says he does it for the money, to secure a future for his family. I ask him if he's a mercenary. "We have been called mercenaries a few times. But we just laugh about it. I'm not fighting anyone's war."
John Fox, 48, a veteran Royal Air Force Regiment sergeant now working as a contractor in Iraq, agrees: "The word 'mercenary' insinuates that you kill for money. If I thought I was a mercenary I would not be here. The last thing I want to do is ask the gunners to use the weapons systems in anger, and I have so far never used a weapon in this country." Fox is also concerned with the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, so I ask him how bad it has to get before he quits: "Enough is enough when it's down to pure luck."
Fox works for the British security company ArmorGroup, which agreed to let me see their operation in Iraq from the inside. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. So after snoozing on a very long but otherwise remarkably uneventful military flight to Baghdad International Airport, being jolted awake by the quick, low-level helicopter flight to the supposedly safe International, or "Green," Zone in the city center, I meet "my" PSD, Personal Security Detail. At first it consists of team leader Pete, a friendly and relaxed young man who immediately recognizes me as the "client" and leads me to the waiting low-profile vehicle convoy.
"Low-profile" is also a relative term in Iraq. Typically it consists of several unmarked, discreetly armored vehicles, manned by operators with concealed body armor and weapons. I'm given a brief on what to do if "something happens," don a shirt over my bulletproof vest, and join Pete and an Iraqi driver in the lead vehicle. As we leave the relative safety of the International Zone, pleasant conversation gives way to constant radio traffic between the vehicles in the convoy, and occasional calls to the operations room. The tone is calm and professional, but the very real fear of death, injury or abduction is obvious.
I spent three weeks with ArmorGroup security operators in Iraq, experiencing the perverse frustration of being in a conflict zone without getting into enough trouble to get "good" photographs. I probably didn't get a very representative impression of the security industry in Iraq. The men I was with certainly didn't live up to the mad mercenary stereotype usually featured in the media, but they did give me a good understanding of just how far the coalition forces in Iraq are willing to go to keep the show on the road.
© Morten Hvaal
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