Private Security Guards in Iraq Operate With Little Supervision

By T. Christian Miller

Los Angeles Times

December 4, 2005

BAGHDAD — Private security contractors have been involved in scores of shootings in Iraq, but none have been prosecuted despite findings in at least one fatal case that the men had not followed proper procedures, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Times.

Instead, security contractors suspected of reckless behavior are sent home, sometimes with the knowledge of U.S. officials, raising questions about accountability and stirring fierce resentment among Iraqis.

Thousands of the heavily armed private guards are in Iraq, under contract with the U.S. government and private companies. The conduct of such security personnel has been one of the most controversial issues in the reconstruction of Iraq. Last week, a British newspaper publicized a so-called trophy video that appears to show private contractors in Iraq firing at civilian vehicles as an Elvis song plays in the background.

The contractors function in a legal gray area. Under an order issued by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority that administered Iraq until June 2004, contractors suspected of wrongdoing are to be prosecuted in their home countries. The contractors have immunity from Iraqi courts and have so far not faced American prosecution, giving little recourse to Iraqis seeking justice for wrongful shootings.

"What was my innocent son's crime?" asked Zahra Ridha, the mother of a 19-year-old shot and killed by security contractors in May. "Is this what we deserve?"

Industry officials say some contractors have voluntarily set up compensation programs, but there is no formal system in place, as there is for cases involving American troops.

The U.S. military has a commission that reviews damages claims and makes payments when troops are determined to have erred in opening fire on property or people. American troops suspected of shooting at Iraqis face trial in military tribunals. More than 20 U.S. service members have been accused of crimes leading to the deaths of Iraqis, and at least 10 have been convicted.

A Justice Department official, who asked not to be identified because he was not an authorized spokesman, said the lack of prosecutions of contractors reflected poor oversight by U.S. officials in Iraq, who were under no compulsion to report suspected criminal behavior.

"Any time you get a large group of people together in one place, bad things are going to happen," the official said.

A Times survey of nearly 200 "serious incident" reports filed by private security firms since November 2004 shows that 11% of the incidents involved contractors firing toward civilian vehicles believed to be a threat.

The reports do not indicate whether the shootings were deemed to be justified, and contain limited information about the fate of the vehicle occupants. The reports, filed voluntarily with the Pentagon, say that the contractors received no fire from the vehicles, but shot at them because they were believed to be potential suicide bombers.

About 20% of the reports involved contractors who said they were fired on by U.S. forces in apparent cases of mistaken identity. Contractors in Iraq frequently travel in unmarked vehicles and do not have reliable communications with military units.

Most of the remaining reports are harrowing accounts of insurgent attacks on contractors that involve roadside bombs, ambushes, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and machine-gun fire.

The reports, which were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Times, represent only a small portion of the serious incidents recorded by the Pentagon since tracking began in 2004.

The Defense Department has denied a Times request to provide the names of the private security contractors in the reports and has yet to release an untold number of additional reports. The Times has filed a federal lawsuit seeking the release of all such reports and security company identities.

The security firms provide armed guards to protect U.S. officials and private contractors working in Iraq.

Although most are paid with government funds, no single U.S. agency regulates them.

Last year, the Pentagon estimated that there were 60 such firms operating in Iraq with about 20,000 employees.

The firms have been awarded at least $766 million in contracts since 2003, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

At their best, security guards are highly trained former special forces soldiers whose professionalism has saved countless lives. Their presence alleviates the need for additional U.S. forces.

Industry officials defended their record in Iraq. Insurgents frequently strike by driving explosives-packed cars into convoys transporting officials. A security contractor has only seconds to decide whether an approaching vehicle is being driven by an insurgent or an innocent Iraqi, they said.

Security contractors "don't want to shoot innocent people," said Lawrence Peters, the former director of the Private Security Company Assn. of Iraq, an industry group. "But it's a war zone, and mistakes do happen."

At their worst, critics say, the contractors are expensive, reckless mercenaries who complicate the U.S. mission in Iraq. A team of private contractors to protect a single U.S. official can cost upward of $5,000 a day. Security firms operating in Iraq have been cited for fraud and have clashed with U.S. forces.

"The overwhelming number of these [security guards] were highly professional and disciplined," said one U.S. official who worked in Iraq. "But if only 1% of them are bad, you're going to have some nasty characters running around who can do harm."

More than 400 contractors, many of them security guards, have been killed in Iraq, according to the most recent statistics available from the Labor Department.

At the same time, contractors have killed an unknown number of Iraqis in battles with insurgents, road collisions and accidental shootings, according to the records and interviews.

The private guards' sometimes aggressive behavior has created a wellspring of anger at the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Countless Iraqis have had to endure the humiliation of being forced to stop or pull off the road as a convoy of unmarked SUVs races past, filled with men waving guns and making threatening gestures.

"This is not a particularly effective way to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis," said Joshua Schwartz, co-director of George Washington University's government procurement program. "The contractors are making the mission of the U.S. military in Iraq more difficult."

An incident in May is a case in point.

Robert J. Callahan, wrapping up his tour as spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, was returning to his offices in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone when his convoy turned onto a broad thoroughfare running through Baghdad's Masbah neighborhood, said U.S. officials and Iraqi witnesses interviewed by The Times.

At the same moment, Mohammed Nouri Hattab, 32, was headed north on the road in his Opel. He was moonlighting as a taxi driver, transporting two passengers he had picked up moments earlier.

Hattab looked up and saw a five-car convoy speed out of a side street in front of him.

He was slowing to a stop about 50 feet from the convoy when he heard a burst of gunfire ring out, he said.

Bullets shot through the hood of his Opel, Hattab said, cut into his shoulder and pierced the chest of Yas Ali Mohammed Yassiri, who was in the back seat, killing him. The second passenger escaped without serious injury. The convoy roared on, leaving chaos in its wake.

"There was no warning. It was a sudden attack," said Hattab, a slight man who can no longer freely move his right arm.

Hattab said it was the third time since the U.S. invasion in 2003 that he had been fired on by Americans. On the first two occasions, U.S. troops who had mistakenly fired at him later apologized, he said.

This time, he said, he has drifted in an endless legal fight for compensation, bouncing between Iraqi courts and U.S. officials. Hattab, an Oil Ministry employee now on disability leave, has seen his pay cut in half to $51 a month.

"We thought [the Americans] would bring freedom. They got rid of Saddam," Hattab said. "Now it's going on three years and what? Where is this freedom?"

The family of his passenger, Yassiri, has fared no better. The 19-year-old newlywed, a Shiite from an impoverished neighborhood in Najaf, was on a trip to Baghdad.

Sitting in their two-room home on a dusty, unpaved street, family members said it wasn't until a Times reporter told them that they realized Yassiri had been killed by private guards and not U.S. soldiers, as they had been told.

"We lived in poverty and oppression during the time of Saddam and we were expecting the opposite when he left," said Adil Jasim, 26, a family friend. "I say that the situation is the same and even worse. American forces came to occupy and to achieve their goals. They don't care about Iraqis."

State Department officials did not respond to requests for comment on the incident. But a U.S. official with knowledge of the case said that embassy officials had reviewed the shooting and determined that employees of the security company involved, North Carolina-based Blackwater USA, had not followed proper procedures.

Two employees of the firm were fired, the U.S. official said. Blackwater declined to comment.

A former U.S. official acknowledged that such shootings harmed America's image in Iraq. Still, he said, the Americans must rely on security guards to move around Iraq since the military was focused on fighting insurgents.

"When something like this happens, you alienate people. It's a risk that you have to weigh," said the official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "There's no good answer."

It is unclear how widespread the problem is. The reports released to The Times are of limited value because the Pentagon released only a sample. Still, they provide a glimpse of the chaos on Iraq's roads. Several reports document traffic collisions with Iraqis who either did not see or ignored security convoys. In one case, a contractor forced a car with an Iraqi man, woman and child off the road. It slammed into a tree. Injuries were unknown.

The convoy "gave very little warning" to the car, said the report by a security contractor who saw the incident. It was "an example of unprofessional operating standards."

Contractors who opened fire on Iraqi vehicles usually did so after the drivers failed to heed warning signs such as a clenched fist, the reports indicate.

In February, a contractor reported opening fire on a black Opel after the driver did not respond to hand signals and a warning shot. The contractors fired 23 rounds from a Russian-made PKM machine gun and nine more shots from an AK-47 into the car.

"We had to open fire directly into that car," wrote the contractor, adding with evident amazement: "Driver of that black Opel survived."


Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad and special correspondents Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and Asmaa Waguih in Baghdad contributed to this report.