Get Rich or Die Trying German Mercenaries Seek their Fortunes in Iraq

American companies like scandal-plagued Blackwater aren't the only ones sending fighters to Iraq -- German companies are also part of the mix. Their mercenaries are either getting rich in the process or returning home in a coffin.

By John Goetz and


It's an ordinary, middle-class row house, with firewood stacked neatly outside and a closely-mowed lawn, part of a development of similar houses in a small town somewhere in Germany. But the unremarkable house is home to a man -- who would prefer it if both he and the town remain anonymous -- who makes his living from war. His office on the second floor marks the starting point of a journey into a war zone for those Germans willing to undergo the risks. For an unlucky few, it's a one-way journey.

The owner of the house runs an agency which sends Germans to crisis zones around the world, especially Iraq, where they work as highly-paid bodyguards, security guards and civilian contractors to the US government. They come from a country that never wanted to get involved in the seemingly endless Iraq war, but which -- through businesses like the one being run from this small office in a nondescript house -- has nonetheless become entangled in the conflict.

Some of these German civilian contractors have lost their lives in Iraq, returning to their native country in coffins. The bodies of others were never found. The man in the row house, one of a handful of such agents operating in Germany, has himself lost some of his colleagues.

The row house is the main office of a company that provides security services, sending civilian contractors to protect others in a country where providing protection is an almost impossible task. The work, though borderline illegal, is extremely lucrative. The distinction between mercenaries and those providing security services in Iraq is blurred at best. German law does not bar German citizens from fighting in other countries, as long as they are not involved in war crimes. However, it is illegal to recruit Germans as mercenaries for other countries' wars.

But there are gray zones and ways of getting around the rules. There are Arab and African countries willing to provide German firms with shell companies outside the jurisdiction of German courts. Nevertheless, these arrangements could end up involving the German government if, for example, a German security officer participates in a massacre -- or merely happens to get kidnapped.

"We urgently caution Germans not to go to Iraq," says a spokesman of the German Foreign Ministry. "This also applies to Germans working for private security firms." The Foreign Ministry has no statistics on how many of these civilian contractors have already been killed. Their bodies are usually sent home on American aircraft -- without going through diplomatic channels.

The man in the row house has the good fortune of resembling actor Brad Pitt, only with a more muscular body. He has the look of a man who has kept himself in excellent shape in the past -- first as a member of a special forces unit and later as a bodyguard for an East German negotiator. Nowadays his direct involvement with weapons is limited to rabbit hunting. Only a few dozen men work for him, making this particular broker a bit player in the high-stakes personal protection market, which is largely in the hands of American companies.

Those with courage and the right skills can earn a very good living, he says, especially in Arab countries, where the members of ruling families are willing to pay a fortune for their security. In Iraq, this also applies to members of the government and many employees of foreign companies. The demand for security services is higher in Iraq, where survival comes at a high cost. The Iraqi capital currently sees an average of 1.8 attacks by insurgents daily.

In Baghdad, international security firms operate in a virtually lawless environment and, in many cases, have assumed paramilitary roles. The number of civilians working in Iraq, 180,000, already exceeds the number of US troops in the country. Around 30,000 of these civilian workers are involved in security. Most of these private warriors are Americans, some of whom work for the scandal-plagued US company Blackwater. No one knows how many Germans are involved with such firms.

For a long time, these foreigners in their bulletproof vests enjoyed immunity from prosecution. In a decree issued in 2004, the US civilian administrator removed them and their activities from the jurisdiction of Iraqi courts. However, the Iraqi government recently presented a draft bill that would eliminate this immunity for foreign security personnel. At a minimum, the law would require that they register their weapons and their armored vehicles in the future.

Nevertheless, there have been numerous cases of attacks on the civilian population, often leading to the deaths of innocent people. Given the constant risk of terrorist attacks on every street corner, it's not surprising if private security personnel can sometimes be trigger-happy. In mid-September, for example, Blackwater contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad intersection because they believed they were under fire. Nevertheless, the company is unlikely to face prosecution in the United States or in Iraq, although US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently decided that the Pentagon will exert tighter control over private contractors in the future.

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