The vehicles sit in a nondescript airport car park looking for all the world like regular Mercedes Benz sedans. They are a little old but otherwise in good repair, and as I open a rear door a crack I feel the cool breeze that signals a working air conditioner.
“Excellent,” is my first thought. For here, even in the shade, the mercury is hovering around 38°C. However, it is the force I must use to open the door that is the first tangible reminder of where I am. For the doors on this vehicle weigh over 100 kg each and are sufficiently heavily armoured to stop a 7.62 mm round from a rifle.
“Welcome to Iraq,” I tell myself.
I am here in search of the story of those Kiwis who live and work in Baghdad as security contractors—former soldiers and policemen whose skills can earn them up to NZ$1000 per day providing armed protection to individuals involved in the reconstruction. While it isn’t known precisely how many Kiwis are working in Iraq, the number is thought to be between 500 and 2000. Taking even the minimum estimate, it is clear to me that the New Zealand contribution to Iraq is significant and that there is a story to tell.
I’ve flown here from Auckland by way of Singapore, Dubai and Amman, where I spent the night arranging entry permits into Iraq. In an effort to control the flow of foreign fighters and Western “war tourists” entering the country, Iraq has effectively closed its borders to all but soldiers, security contractors and journalists. If you do not fall into one of these categories and don’t have the necessary paperwork to back you up, it is almost certain you will never board your flight.
This morning, some US$400 lighter from paying “fees” to a local fixer who arranged my visa, I boarded a charter flight to Baghdad.
Standing in the arrivals car park of Baghdad International Airport, I contemplate the vehicles that will be my protection for the next seven days. Known as B6 sedans (being armoured on all six sides), these kevlar-and-steel-reinforced cars have had some two tonnes added to them in the interests of preserving the lives of the passengers they carry. Vehicles like these are what Kiwis providing protection in Iraq use every day for their clients, and I’ll use them too.
At a basic level they seem impressive. They will withstand a sustained attack from a standard AK-47, the weapon of choice in war-torn Iraq. However, the cold truth is that attack is more likely to come in the form of an IED (improvised explosive device) or roadside bomb, the power of which will easily rip through the protective shield encasing the occupants.
Should an attack not be explosive, it is likely to involve rounds of ammunition designed to pierce the armour and “immobilise resistance” (i.e. kill any bodyguard), followed by tracers intended to ignite the fuel tank and cause the vehicle to explode. These are the brutal facts of life when travelling in Baghdad. Protection often provides no more than an extra few per cent safety.
My quiet contemplation of the hazards ahead is broken by the authoritative voice of Barrie Rice, a former member of the elite New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) who has travelled to Iraq with me to be both bodyguard and guide. He has worked as a security contractor in Iraq for over three years and knows better than most the reality of providing security in Baghdad. He proceeds to describe the route we’ll be taking into the city and its inherent dangers. As I listen, my ears seem to focus on phrases like “numerous car bombs and attacks from overpasses”, “in the event of bullets or bombs we will attempt to drive straight through and regroup” and, of course, the simple summary of a professional soldier, “Yeah, it’s dangerous, mate, real dangerous.”
I first came across the subject of this story some 18 months ago. It seemed well reported that there were thousands of security contractors in Iraq, but what I didn’t know was that New Zealand was quietly building a reputation as a world-class provider of protection in that most dangerous of countries. Kiwi military skills are some of the best around—perhaps not so surprising, given New Zealand’s military record through the 20th century. International clients were keen to acquire them, and companies that provided protection were prepared to pay handsomely for Kiwis to join their teams. Nonetheless, as I am increasingly to find, the equation for many has become less about money and more about the choice of life over death.
I am to meet several Kiwis while I’m in Baghdad, and Barrie is to be my conduit to them. My security team will drive two vehicles and include at least one other Kiwi. Over the coming tension-filled days, his calm voice will be a constant reminder to me of why Kiwis are so good at this job. Nonetheless, discussion with him and the others will be limited.
For them as for most ex-soldiers, talking to a journalist is, as a rule, to be avoided at all costs.
Our route from the airport to the centre of Baghdad takes us along what many consider one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Known as Route Irish to the US military and BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) Road to civilians, it has been dubbed by the media the Highway of Death. Despite concerted efforts by the US military to bring a sense of safety to this stretch of road, it is attacked daily by a raging insurgent movement, for it is heavily used by Westerners, including journalists and coalition soldiers. For an insurgent, taking a pot shot at a vehicle travelling this road is an odds-on bet that he will hit someone considered the enemy—the enemy to many Iraqis being anyone from the West.
Travelling in Baghdad, I soon learn, is a bit like being around a radioactive pellet. But for being warned otherwise, you would take it for a harmless object. Your caution is simply a response to what the experts tell you. Take the six-lane BIAP Road. You are told it’s dangerous—very dangerous. Why else are we belting along with the needle nudging 140 kph? Yet outside the reinforced glass and armour plating, the sun shines on an exotic and apparently peaceful land full of interest. I imagine the pleasure to be had from just walking through the little hamlets we’re speeding past.
Most of the time Baghdad strikes me as peaceful, despite the stern warnings I have been given. Yet, as Barrie reminds me, this is precisely why some Westerners have come here without protection, only to find themselves kidnapped, beaten and, in some cases, brutally murdered. To move around this city without armed protection is to invite almost certain violence. And it can happen within minutes of leaving whatever security you’ve had until that point.
Of course, this is why there is such a thriving security industry in Iraq, and in Baghdad in particular. A census published by the Washington Post in December 2006 estimated that up to 75,000 civilians (not including those working in security) were involved in the reconstruction of Iraq. Given so many, and knowing that all are prime targets for the insurgency, the Pentagon has had to turn to private security providers such as Blackwater, Armour Group, Control Risks, DynCorp and Custer Battles, to extend at least a degree of protection. These companies have a high profile on the streets of Baghdad, their vehicles bristling with machine guns mounted in specially designed ports, their personnel employing tactics that foster huge resentment within the civilian population.
As the war has progressed, many security companies have found themselves expanding and their wealth growing. The US government has poured billions of dollars into reconstruction programmes with aims as diverse as boosting power generation, improving water treatment, building schools and training the Iraqi National Army. All of these tasks require Western expertise, and all of those involved are under constant threat. Consequently, security has become the number-one growth industry in Iraq and those providing it have grown rich.
My trip down BIAP Road proves uneventful, although I do watch with amazement as overhead US Blackhawk helicopters fire flares in an effort to confuse any ground-based missiles that might be targeting them. Barrie leans over to say, “They’re getting quite good at shooting down choppers, you know; quite a few successes recently.”
While I’ve heard of several incidents involving downed aircraft, Barrie’s comment has me pondering comparisons from history. Traditionally, when a guerrilla or insurgent movement starts bringing down aircraft on a regular basis, it’s a sure sign the occupier is losing his grip. Over the coming days I will increasingly be reminded of this.
That night Barrie and I sit on the balcony of a room overlooking a secure compound in the Red Zone, the part of Baghdad just outside the high-security International, or Green Zone (although the term is commonly applied to all unsecured parts of the city). I have nervously sought to stay in the Red Zone as I wish to be near the men whose story I’ve come to learn. Kiwis have started to die here while working as security contractors, and I want to hear what Barrie thinks about it.
“Well, there are hundreds of Kiwis working here as PSD [personal security detail], and while one was recently killed, it’s just the nature of the job you’re in,” he states matter-of-factly. “The truth is you come here for your 90 days and you either wait until the end of your rotation or go home in a body bag.”
A 90-day tour, or rotation, is the standard period of service. During that time it’s a seven-days-a–week, 24-hours-a-day job, carrying out whatever tasks the company you work for assigns. Most Kiwis live in compounds on US bases or in fortified hotels like the one I’m staying in. Their existence is very similar to the military life they’re accustomed to.
Before coming to Iraq, I spoke with Canadian adventurer, journalist, author (of, most famously, The World’s Most Dangerous Places) and filmmaker Robert Young Pelton. His comments reflected a colder interpretation of the security contractor’s life.
“These men live in conditions that I would consider atrocious,” he told me, “but the pay reflects the hardships. As a security contractor you are a favourite target of the insurgency, but you don’t have the same ability to call up support as, say, the US military. So yes, it’s dangerous, very dangerous; one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.”
Before dawn next day I hear the call to prayer, a gentle song echoing from minarets all over Baghdad. It’s still dark, but as I rise to listen, moving closer to my balcony, another sound cuts through the harmony. Gunfire. Not the random bursts I will become accustomed to hearing every 15 minutes over the coming days, but the rapid controlled bursts of automatic rifles, answered by the steady beat of a high-calibre machine gun. As I stand and listen I hear also the dull thuds of what I suspect are grenades. And is that shouting? But these other sounds are soon lost in the steady beat of gunfire, which, as I turn and head for the showers, already seems almost normal.
When I return to New Zealand I’ll relate the incident to Barrie’s wife, Jen, and ponder the ease with which I turned my back on the violence around me. And I’ll want to know what happens to the man who comes home after his 90-day rotation having seen and heard the violence on a daily basis. “They are all the same,” she’ll tell me, “every single one of them. When they come home, if they come home, they have changed.” Jen knows what she’s talking about, since she’s been with Barrie for several years and has seen him come home from many rotations.
When I question Barrie about how he deals with the sounds and sights of Baghdad, he replies: “The husband over here is not the same as the husband back home.
When you’re in Baghdad you eat, sleep and live PSD work 24 hours a day. You turn your back on what’s going on around you and focus on staying alive.”
Later that day in Baghdad, I bear this in mind as I take a ride with a two-vehicle PSD on routine reconnaissance of a district called Karada. At the briefing beforehand, I’m told that planning the movement of people is an integral part of a PSD’s job in this city.
Located on the west bank of the River Tigris, Karada is intersected by Sadoun Street, a long straight thoroughfare that leads to the site where a large statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down by an American tank in 2003, an act many thought signalled the end of the war.
Suddenly I hear, “People with guns running after us.” As I look up from my camera I mutter a four-letter expletive. A man with an AK-47 is approaching the vehicle and stops us in the midst of the traffic. The tension is palpable, the language barrier an immediate problem despite the presence of our Arabic translator.
I hear the calm voice of one of the security team speaking to the other car over the radio:
“Hang on, mate, we’ve been stopped.” For the next few moments there is a tense stand-off as armed men on either side eye one other suspiciously, each trying to gauge the likelihood of matters ending in violence. The radio crackles again and I hear our other Kiwi ask, “Everything OK?” For now there is no answer—everyone in my vehicle is occupied. I look across the back seat and remember what I’ve been told: in the event of an incident exit the vehicle on the side away from the trouble. I ask myself whether I’ll make it out should the situation go from bad to deadly.
At this moment I understand why men like Barrie have a job. Most Iraqis are sensible people and want nothing to do with the war and its viciousness; but there are still thousands who feel differently, who are angry enough to pick up a rifle or plant a bomb. I wonder what sort is in front of me.
In Baghdad there are some 23 insurgent groups, all committed to the destruction of Westerners and the infrastructure that supports them. Fortunately we haven’t run into one of them. These are militiamen, locals who have banded together to protect a neighbourhood or a way of life. Potentially as deadly as the insurgents, they are nevertheless willing to listen and decide we can be trusted. They let us through, and soon afterwards we finish our reconnaissance and return to the compound.
“Got caught with a camera, huh.” Barrie makes it more a statement than a question when we catch up later. “Everyone’s paranoid here because the insurgents take pictures of what they’re going to attack.”
So now I know why private security is needed here. But why are Kiwis so popular? How does a small, peaceable nation like New Zealand become a premium provider of guns for hire? For an answer I turn to a client: Larry Doyle, Baghdad bureau chief for CBS News.
“Big country, big company, guarded by guys from a small island far away,” he starts in with a deep East Coast drawl. He tells me that Kiwis are the best there are. “They come with a personality that is flexible, they never show a glimmer of being anything but even-keeled.”
It’s a response repeated by everyone I ask. In Baghdad, it seems, New Zealanders are more than in demand: they are respected.
Each evening I watch the sunset, a deep red scar across the western horizon. The sun here is searingly hot, a reminder that in Iraq I’m a Westerner far from home. It’s never like this in New Zealand. Each day I head out with Barrie and various security teams to carry out reconnaissance, move civilians or deliver documents, and each day I become increasingly aware of the dangers and the violence that dominate the city. Gunfire breaks out every five or ten minutes, car bombs seem to signal the hour, and the more I look, the more I see a country bleeding to death. The irony when I hear “Bring back Saddam” from the locals is not lost on me.
Behind the semblance of normality that nevertheless persists are the seeds of many tragedies, and security contractors play a role in their sowing. Robert Pelton put it thus:
“Every security contractor I have met is an upstanding citizen; they have a military background, they’re not running from anyone. But the job is such that even the best of them are sometimes compelled to act in contravention of their moral code. Every contractor is forced at some point to say to themselves: ‘I don’t want to be driving at 80 miles an hour smashing people off the road, I don’t want to be getting into gun fights on a daily basis, but hey, that’s the business I’m in.’”
“Everything is connected” is a truth I soon learn in Baghdad. For the rights and wrongs in this civil war very quickly turn to shades of grey once you start talking to those involved. Barrie gives me more insight into why the Kiwis are in demand here, why they have proved popular with the locals when most Westerners are hated at every level.
“The culture of New Zealand, and particularly in our military, is a hearts-and-minds programme. You try to get people on your side, and if you treat people like you would want to be treated, you come out with friends not enemies.”
There can be no doubt that this is a violent place, and no doubt of the demand on security contractors at times to match the violence they encounter. But the attitude behind such a response is what makes the difference. Kiwis don’t go looking for a fight. Make friends before enemies seems to be their mantra. It’s an approach that I’m sure helps keep them alive.
The week ticks by, and, with only a day left in Baghdad, I realise there is one aspect of this story I have yet to tackle: death. According to the website www.icasualties.org, at least 414 security contractors have been killed since the 2003 invasion, including three New Zealanders. Everyone here knows that when you take to the roads of Iraq, you take your life in your hands. But what do the end results look like? What is the truth behind the high wages some Kiwi contractors enjoy? I decide to take a drive with Barrie to find out.
Towards sunset, we head out in our armoured Mercedes for the Mansour district of Baghdad, a centre of the Sunni insurgency. We hope to find the remains of a security-contractor vehicle hit the day before by an IED. It’s time for early-evening prayers, which means there’ll be less traffic, allowing us greater freedom of movement should we need to take any kind of evasive action.
The drive is almost enjoyable: the traffic flows, and we are waved straight through the checkpoints. I can feel that benign attitude towards the city creeping over me, the sense that I could almost like this ancient place. Yet as I turn to Barrie I can see he isn’t happy.
“It doesn’t make any sense going out there,” he tells me, “but it’s a very good way of showing you what can happen if things go wrong”.
We continue on our way, an eerie progression towards what we know is the death place of at least two men.
It’s noisy at the IED site. Seconds after we arrive, a US Stryker patrol moves past us. The roar of the engines of the eight-wheeled armoured vehicles is deafening. We look at the wreck in front of us.
“This is it,” shouts Barrie. “This is what happens when things go wrong”.
It makes a sobering sight. Not long ago, it was a four-tonne armour-reinforced 4WD vehicle. Now it’s a blackened and twisted heap. It’s hard to imagine the force that can crush such a vehicle like an aluminium can. I stand and stare.
“Let’s go, right now,” Barrie shouts with unmistakable urgency. “Man over the road watching us, talking on a cell phone. Move.”
We’ve been at the site only two minutes but Barrie has identified what he believes is a “dicker”, or spotter, for a local insurgent group. We speed away at close to 100 kph. Barrie sits calmly in the back seat—there’s nothing else he can usefully do—but he does have a 9 mm pistol in his hand.
As we weave through the early-evening traffic, I reflect on everything I’ve seen. Iraq is a place where Kiwis with world-class military skills can see those skills rewarded; where, working as a security contractor, you can earn the deposit on a decent family home from one rotation. But it’s also a place where sudden death lurks at every turn.
I think back to a meeting I had before I came here. It was with the wife of a contractor who had died when an IED had ripped through the vehicle he’d been in somewhere on the outskirts of Baghdad. She told me that she and her husband had decided together that he would go to Iraq. They’d had dreams and goals that a security contractor’s salary could have helped them realise.
I think about what it was they wanted. This couple dreamed of better schools for their children, a nicer home for the family, the chance to be middle class and enjoy all that New Zealand life can provide. As we speed on through the Baghdad traffic, I wonder if the men whose grave I’ve just seen had similar dreams.
I look at Barrie as he grips his pistol, his face a study in concentration. Is he thinking about his family as we head for the relative safety of our compound?
That evening—my last in Baghdad—I sit again with Barrie. We’ve made it back in one piece, but all things considered it was far too close a call. So I want to know from Barrie where the tipping point lies. I’ve seen what happens in this city and can understand why New Zealanders come here, despite the risks. But when is enough enough? When do the risks outweigh the rewards, and when do you tell yourself that it’s time, as Barrie has already put it once, “to take what you have and appreciate it”.
As we’re talking, Barrie’s cell phone rings. He knows a lot of people in Iraq so the call itself is quite normal. What it’s about is not.
“One of my closest friends has just been killed by an IED, right now, just then, dead,” he tells me.
“You know, when I came back here I was thinking, yeah, I could keep doing this. But the news of my friend getting killed—I ask myself what’s the point? So I say stuff that, I’m never coming back.”
In the course of my assignment, I’ve seen the graves of men, heard the news of death and reflected upon the reasons Kiwis have for coming here. I’ve learnt that some come for cash but most for the opportunity to better their families. But I’ve also seen a wife without a husband, children without a father, and now a man lose a friend and colleague. The Kiwis in Iraq may be special, but they’re not immune to the violence around them. Some may for a time, as I have periodically done, fall under the spell of the benign Iraq, the place of exotic beauty and historical interest; for while death is a daily occurrence, more often than not it takes place across the river or in another suburb, the smoke rising on the horizon, in someone else’s patch. But it cannot remain someone else’s battle forever, and for those Kiwis who stay on, the odds of escaping yet another roadside bomb grow shorter.
The next afternoon Barrie and I sit side by side as our charter flight lifts off from Baghdad International Airport.
“It’s been good, but it’s time to move on,” he tells me.
Looking out over the wing, I watch the city recede to a distant smudge and think again about the Kiwis who have chosen to live and work there. In some ways they represent the best of our national character: compassionate, professional, low-key and adaptable. But they’re also involved in a war of which New Zealand wants no part, selling skills developed to defend their own country to those who would use them to project force in another.