by Robert Fisk in and Severin Carrell
An army of thousands of mercenaries has appeared in Iraq's major cities, many of them former British and American soldiers hired by the occupying Anglo-American authorities and by dozens of companies who fear for the lives of their employees.
Many of the armed Britons are former SAS soldiers and heavily armed South Africans are also working for the occupation. "My people know how to use weapons and they're all SAS," said the British leader of one security team in southern Baghdad. "But there are people running around with guns now who are just cowboys. We always conceal our weapons, but these guys think they're in a Hollywood film."
There are serious doubts even within the occupying power about America's choice to send Chilean mercenaries, many trained during General Pinochet's vicious dictatorship, to guard Baghdad airport. Many South Africans are in Iraq illegally - they are breaking new laws, passed by the government in Pretoria, to control South Africa's booming export of mercenaries. Many have been arrested on their return home because they are do not have the licence now required by private soldiers.
Casualties among the mercenaries are not included in the regular body count put out by the occupation authorities, which may account for the persistent suspicion among Iraqis that the US is underestimating its figures of military dead and wounded. Some British experts claim that private policing is now the UK's biggest export to Iraq - a growth fueled by the surge in bomb attacks on coalition forces, aid agencies and UN buildings since the official end of the war in May last year.
Many companies operate from villas in middle-class areas of Baghdad with no name on the door. Some security men claim they can earn more than £80,000 a year; but short-term, high-risk mercenary work can bring much higher rewards. Security personnel working a seven-day contract in cities like Fallujah, can make $1,000 a day.
Although they wear no uniform, some security men carry personal identification on their flak jackets, along with their rifles and pistols. Others refuse to identify themselves even in hotels, drinking beer by the pool, their weapons at their feet. In several hotels, guests and staff have complained that security men have held drunken parties and one manager was forced to instruct mercenaries in his hotel that they must carry their guns in a bag when they leave the premises. His demand was ignored.
One British company director, David Claridge of the security firm Janusian, has estimated that British firms have earned up to £800m from their contracts in Iraq - barely a year after the invasion of Iraq. One British-run firm, Erinys, employs 14,000 Iraqis as watchmen and security guards to protect the country's oil fields and pipelines.