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Private Security Workers Living On Edge in Iraq

"We're seeing personal security teams are getting hit more," said Richard Hicks, Blackwater's operations manager in Baghdad. "There's been a definite increase in attacks, to hit us where it hurts the most."

At the same time, Hicks said, contractors are under pressure to curb their aggressive methods, although they lack the firepower and backup enjoyed by the U.S. military. Early in the Iraq conflict and up until last year, "there were no rules" limiting contractors' use of force in Iraq, Hicks said. More recently, the State Department imposed restrictions discouraging the contractors from firing warning shots. There are still daily reports of contractors running Iraqis off the road or injuring or killing innocent people, he said.

Blackwater employee and ex-Marine John "Tool" Freeman uses an armored vehicle to drive visitors from Baghdad airport to the downtown Green Zone. (Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)

"Now it's all about accountability," he said at Blackwater's Baghdad team house in the Green Zone, not far from the crossed-sabers archway, a symbol of the era of ousted president Saddam Hussein.

On Their Own

At the team house, the large, comfortable, but simple home of a former Baath Party member, Blackwater employees relax in the evening, eating home-cooked meals of stuffed tomatoes, chicken or hamburgers prepared by an Iraqi staff. Unlike the U.S. military, Blackwater has a far smaller logistical support system and purchases food and other supplies directly from Iraqi sources.

Employees of Blackwater, based in Moyock, N.C., and other private security firms said they were more flexible, efficient and, in many cases, more experienced than U.S. military forces in Iraq. With many of their members former Navy SEALs or Army Green Berets, their teams are small, tight-knit and responsive both by choice and necessity -- if they get in a tough spot, they can't depend on U.S. troops to come to their aid, they say.

Many recalled an incident in April 2004 when eight Blackwater employees fought off a major insurgent assault on the U.S. government compound in Najaf by the militia of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. Blackwater pilots flew in ammunition and evacuated the wounded without any U.S. military support, they said.

Rich and others said they were frequently fired upon by U.S. soldiers and Marines at checkpoints. "I've been shot at numerous times by our troops, and that's in a black Suburban with American flags," Rich said. Still, they say cooperation with the U.S. military on the ground is largely positive and voiced sympathy for the far younger, low-paid U.S. servicemen, who they say regularly approach them asking about jobs at Blackwater.

Vetting for Blackwater hires is rigorous, said Hicks, a former police chief in Pennsylvania. While the money was a key reason he joined, he said, "Once you get here the money isn't really an issue, because you could be dead the next day."

At the Bristol Hotel in Amman, Jordan, where Blackwater employees transit to and from Iraq, J.D. Stratton, a burly company manager, said 10 percent of Blackwater hires may be unqualified "chuckleheads" who just happen to make it through the screening.

"But they'll eventually be caught," said Stratton, whose nickname is "Terminator" because it is his job to dismiss those who don't work out. "If I show up at your doorstep, you are out of there," he said.

Alcohol abuse and a defiant attitude tend to be the main reasons people are fired, he said, relaxing with other employees at Harry's Jazz Bar. "You have to be disciplined to do this job. If any one of them is a cowboy he will . . . get everyone killed."

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