Irish Americans are lobbying the Bush administration to revoke a $293 million Iraq security contract awarded to a British firm after raising concerns about the chief executive's military past in Northern Ireland.
The contract, the largest yet awarded for security in postwar Iraq, was granted to Aegis Defense Services Ltd. in late May. It calls for Aegis to provide security teams for the Project and Contracting Office, the body responsible for overseeing $18.4 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds.
Aegis is run by Tim Spicer, a former lieutenant colonel in the Scots Guards who sparked a political scandal in Britain in the late 1990s because of the involvement of his then-company Sandline International in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Some Irish American and human rights groups oppose the Aegis contract because of Spicer's support for two soldiers convicted of murder while under his command in Northern Ireland. The two soldiers shot Belfast teenager Peter McBride to death in 1992.
Spicer defended the two soldiers, and despite the original convictions and appeals in which the murder verdicts were upheld, he continued to insist they were innocent.
In a recent letter to President Bush, the Rev. Sean McManus of the Irish National Caucus (INC), a D.C.-based lobbying group, warned the contract award could damage the Bush administration's relations with Irish Americans in the run-up to the November election.
"Just when you need to reach out to Irish Catholics, your Department of Defense does something to insult and offend them," McManus wrote.
In an interview, McManus said the contract had caused outrage among Irish Americans.
"This is a deeply offensive and insensitive move and represents a real kick in the teeth for Irish Americans," McManus said. "President Bush should tear up this contract immediately out of decency and respect."
The State Department confirmed it had referred INC's concerns to Defense after McManus raised the issue during a briefing by Mitchell B. Reiss, Bush's envoy for Northern Ireland.
Paul O'Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre, a human rights group in Northern Ireland, also called for the contract to be withdrawn.
"As commander in Belfast, Tim Spicer believed his soldiers were above the law and he disputed their convictions for murder," he said. "We need to know if his background was taken into consideration when this contract was awarded."
In Britain, Sandline was at the center of a political controversy in 1999 after a parliamentary inquiry found that an intervention by the firm in Sierra Leone included shipping arms to the country despite a U.N. embargo.
Sandline said it had acted with British government approval, but the inquiry cleared British ministers of wrongdoing.
The company's involvement in efforts to quash rebels in Papua New Guinea in 1997 was followed by an army rebellion and a coup.
Spicer resigned as Sandline's chief executive in September 2000, and the firm wound up operations in April 2004.
DynCorp, a Texas-based security firm and one of six bidders for the contract, has filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, contesting the grounds on which the contract was awarded to Aegis. The GAO is expected to report on the case Sept. 30.
Following DynCorp's complaint, the Department of Defense issued a "stay" notice, putting the contract on hold. This was later lifted, according to Sara Pearson, a spokeswoman for Aegis, and the contract is proceeding as planned.
"The awarding of the contract was extremely rigorous and all relevant facts were obviously known by the authorities. We have nothing further to add to that," she said.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) has raised concerns about Aegis's lack of experience in Iraq in a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"It is inconceivable that the firm charged with the responsibility for coordinating all security of firms and individuals performing reconstruction is one which has never even been in the country," Sessions wrote.