The Digital Journalist
Another Road to Hell
January 2007

by Morten Hvaal

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.

Private security operators from the British company ArmorGroup escort a supply convoy near Tal Afar, Iraq, on Oct. 19, 2006. The coalition forces and civilian administration in Iraq depend heavily on thousands of controversial security contractors to support their reconstruction efforts and military operations.

(Photo by: Morten Hvaal/WpN)
In the gun turret of the armored pickup truck two operators manning 5.56mm machine guns try to spot signs of more trouble in the zero-visibility conditions. "At least they can not see us," one of them says between coughs through his ski mask. "They" are the insurgents, ever present on most major roads in Iraq, attacking targets of opportunity with increasingly sophisticated weapons and methods. Their targets of choice are often lumbering supply convoys, escorted by private security contractors.

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.

Private security operator Karl Moore (right) speaks with a local shepherd on the notoriously dangerous road between the Camp Wolf military outpost and Al Asad Air Base in northwestern Iraq on Nov. 2, 2006. His colleague, Mick Holgate, stands by. In the background, a convoy escorted by the British company ArmorGroup has been stopped by improvised explosive devices.

(Photo by: Morten Hvaal/WpN)
"Speed is our best weapon," says team leader Kent Paget, 29, a former British Parachute Regiment sergeant now working for a private security company in Iraq. "Nine out of 10 times we are able to push through an ambush, regroup and keep moving. At least until we hit the next ambush." Improvised explosive devices, IEDs, are another matter. Most IEDs are now powerful enough to disable a vehicle. Even if the occupants survive the detonation, they will have to be rescued. That means operators getting out of armored vehicles and exposing themselves to small-arms fire. It also means pushing the red panic buttons inside the vehicles, hopefully triggering support from the coalition quick-reaction force.

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."

Private security operators from the British company ArmorGroup escort a supply convoy past a burning truck on the road from Baghdad to Al Asad Air Base, near Iraq's border with Syria, on Oct. 22, 2006.

(Photo by: Morten Hvaal/WpN)
A conflict within the conflict is being fought every day on the roads of Iraq as operators fight their way through ambushes to keep supplies coming to the coalition forces. No one knows the real casualty figures, or very much else about the private security industry, but any operator you speak to will tell you it's getting worse, fast. "This is a dangerous life because we're in a business that puts money ahead of life," says John Fox.

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.

A private security operator from the British company ArmorGroup guards a supply convoy at the Camp Wolf military outpost, near Iraq's border with Syria, on Nov. 3, 2006. He is one of thousands of controversial security contractors in Iraq.

(Photo by: Morten Hvaal/WpN)
Going "low-profile" is an extremely demanding form of security work. With limited firepower, prevention is everything. That means not getting stuck in traffic, not generating attention, and recognizing and avoiding all potential threats. The advantages of having good Iraqi personnel are obvious: they drive like the other locals, and often see the dangerous details foreigners miss. The highly trained and experienced expatriates usually assess risk more conservatively, and apply more sophisticated tactics.

"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

Born in Norway in 1963, Morten Hvaal grew up travelling all over the world. His interest in photography started as a teenager when his father let him use his Olympus OM-2 camera. After starting by opening the camera and ruining his father's photographs, he improved somewhat, becoming an award-winning international documentary photographer. Since 1982 Hvaal has covered mainly conflicts and humanitarian crises all over the world. He is represented by World Picture Network.

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