Thousands of former UK troops now mercenaries in Iraq

by JAN BRUCE, Defence Correspondent

Thousands of former British soldiers have signed up as mercenaries in Iraq since 2003, lured by the prospect of a tax-free £250 a day offered by "private military companies" making billions from the booming security industry.

A four-man ex-SAS team in Baghdad can command £2500 a day and live in the plushest villas in the most exclusive section of the Iraqi capital.

The UN estimates that 20,000 of the 126,000 known contractors in Iraq are hired guns. Those in most demand are ex-British, South African and American army personnel, although Russia, the Balkans, Nepal, Fiji and South America are also well-represented by experienced soldiers looking for work.

Most are paid for close protection, escorting diplomats, civil servants or oil industry officials and providing the deterrent firepower to ward off would-be criminal kidnappers or insurgent hostage-takers.

They earn up to £7000 a month tax-free - six or seven times the take-home pay in the British and US armies.

Their main value to both Britain and the US is that they perform tasks which would otherwise fall to overstretched regular military forces and they are expendable in terms of the political arithmetic of the body bag.

Soldiers arriving home in flag-draped coffins have a negative impact on voter confidence. Dead contractors - about 1000 over the past five years - are laid to rest unannounced.

Erinys, a British firm, fields an armed force of 14,000 guarding Iraq's vulnerable oil wells and pipelines. Its manpower, composed of Iraqis and "third world nationals", outnumbers the British Army outside Basra by almost four to one.

ArmorGroup, a British rival, employs 700 Gurkhas to shepherd America's primary Bechtel and KBR contractors in Iraq. Most of the Nepalese were trained by the British and served in one of the UK's regular Gurkha battalions.

Most of the ex-soldiers making a highly lucrative living as bodyguards or convoy escorts act responsibly minimising civilian casualties. As always, however, there are trigger-happy cowboys without combat experience out to make a reputation for being what the Americans call "hard-core".

The regular coalition forces have little sympathy for mercenaries, although the kidnapping of five Britons in a single incident in Baghdad last May forced the Foreign Office to intervene on the orders of Downing Street. The captors are believed to be a splinter group of the Shi'ite Mehdi Army.

The SAS, the most likely group to be called upon to find them, maintains a 60-strong detachment in Iraq known as Task Force Black. It operates from a building in Baghdad's Green Zone nicknamed The Station House.

A former special forces officer told The Herald: "The problem with mounting a rescue attempt where multiple hostages are involved is knowing where each one is being held and then timing the assault to the split-second to hit all locations simultaneously.

"Insurgents scatter their hostages. They may not even be in the same city, never mind the same building. Operationally, if you don't have the complete, detailed intelligence picture, you are sentencing any hostage you don't reach in the initial strike to death.

"As soon as their captors know the game is up then the others become liabilities rather than assets. A rescue mission is a last resort. Negotiation may take a while, but it's a lot safer than storming in at gunpoint."

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