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Iraq Contractors Face Growing Parallel War

Frontline duties: Cameron Simpson, left, whose firm protects a third of nonmilitary supply convoys; Victoria Wayne, who calls security contractors "unsung heroes"; and Jack Holly, without weapon, Army Corps of Engineers logistics chief. (By Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)

The convoy had been protected by Hart Security, a British firm that used unarmored vehicles. Within a month, another Hart-led convoy was hit. The team leader informed the ground-control center by cellphone that he was running out of ammunition. He left the cellphone on as his convoy was overrun.

"We listened to the bad guys for almost an hour after they finished everybody off," Holly said.

The attacks represented a turning point in the private war.

Holly vowed he would never again use unarmored vehicles for convoy protection. He went to his primary shipper, Public Warehousing Co. of Kuwait, and ordered a change. PWC hired ArmorGroup, which had armed Ford F-350 pickups with steel-reinforced gun turrets and belt-fed machine guns.

Other companies followed suit, ramping up production of an array of armored and semi-armored trucks of various styles and colors, until Iraq's supply routes resembled the post-apocalyptic world of the "Mad Max" movies.

Bolstered Tactics, Armor

ArmorGroup started in Iraq in 2003 with four security teams and 20 employees. It now has 30 mechanics to support its ground operation. "It's a monster," said Simpson, the country operations manager, strolling past a truck blown apart by a roadside bomb.

ArmorGroup operates 10 convoy security teams in support of Holly's logistics operation. The company runs another 10 to 15 under a half-dozen contracts, as well as for clients who request security on a case-by-case basis, Simpson said.

The company charges $8,000 to $12,000 a day, according to sources familiar with the pricing, although the cost can vary depending on convoy size and the risk. For security reasons, the convoys are limited to 10 tractor-trailers protected by at least four armored trucks filled with 20 guards: four Western vehicle commanders with M-21 assault rifles and 9mm Glock pistols, and 16 Iraqis with AK-47s.

The Western contractors, most with at least 10 years' experience, are paid about $135,000, the same as a U.S. Army two-star general. The Iraqis receive about a tenth of that.

"Every time I think about how it was at the beginning, arriving here with a suitcase and $1,000, and there was no one else around, it's just incredible," Simpson said. "Nobody envisioned that private security companies would be openly targeted by insurgents."

ArmorGroup prides itself on a low-key approach to security. Its well-groomed guards travel in khakis and dark blue shirts. The company's armored trucks are adorned with stickers issued by the Interior Ministry, where the company is fully licensed. Holly's former deputy, Victoria Wayne, said ArmorGroup turned down an opportunity to use more powerful weaponry as the insurgent threat increased.

"As a publicly traded company, they didn't want to be perceived as a mercenary force," she said.


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