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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)

But the company is under constant attack. ArmorGroup ran 1,184 convoys in Iraq in 2006; it reported 450 hostile actions, mostly roadside bombs, small-arms fire and mortar attacks. The company was attacked 293 times in the first four months of 2007, according to ArmorGroup statistics. On the dangerous roads north of Baghdad, "you generally attract at least one incident every mission," Simpson said.

Allan Campion, 36, who joined ArmorGroup after 18 years in the British infantry, said one of his convoys was recently attacked three times on a two-mile stretch outside Baghdad. One bomb exploded near the team leader's vehicle, but the convoy managed to continue, he said. Within minutes, another bomb exploded, followed by small-arms fire.

A firefight ensued as the convoy continued through the "kill zone," Campion said.

"We were still moving, so whether you've hit anybody or not, it's very hard to say," he said.

With the insurgents employing more-lethal roadside bombs, ArmorGroup has responded by changing tactics and spending $6.8 million to bolster its armor. Its new armored "Rock" vehicles are built on Ford F-550 chassis and are favored by ArmorGroup because of a V-shaped hull that provides better protection against roadside bombs.

Chris Berman, a former Navy SEAL who helped design the Rock for North Carolina-based Granite Tactical Vehicles, said its main deterrent is its twin gun hatches. "That gives you twice as much firepower," Berman said. "With two belt-fed machine guns in there, that's enough to chew up most people."

'Caught Up in the Mix'

Built on the site of a former Iraqi tank factory, the Abu Ghraib warehouse complex is known variously as Fort Apache, the Isle of Abu and Rocket City, a reference to when rockets and mortars frequently rained down on the compound.

The bleak, windswept facility consists of 64 buildings spread over a 1 1/2 -mile-long and half-mile-wide area; employees of Public Warehousing (now Agility) -- barricaded inside the fortress -- installed a driving range and a small fishing pond for entertainment. The perimeter is protected by double blast walls, guard towers equipped with belt-fed Dushka machine guns and uniformed Kurdish guards who answer to a military-style rank structure and carry AK-47 assault rifles.

Over the past two years, warehouse personnel "probably average four to six KIA a month and six to eight wounded a month," said Leon Sharon, the Falcon Security representative, dressed in a khaki military uniform with a "Falcon 6" patch identifying him as a field commander for the company.

"It's not a game," Sharon said. "People get killed here trying to go home. People trying to come here get killed because they work here. People on convoy escort get killed because of the materiel that we're shipping out of here. Truck drivers get killed because they get caught up in these ambushes. And you have security personnel who end up caught up in the mix. And the work has to go on as normal."

Attacks on Iraqi employees became so common that a trauma center was set up inside the main warehouse. Dozens of Iraqis, fearful of going home after work, live in barracks-style housing in the compound.

Sharon, 61, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is rail thin with a weathered, intelligent face shaped by chain-smoking and four decades of military work. He works out of a small office that is also his bedroom. A humidor sits on his desk. A U.S. flag covers his window. Cartons of Marlboro Reds are stacked behind him near a leather-bound copy of the Koran.


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