BAGHDAD, Iraq—The convoy halts, and a burst of Slavic invective comes over the radio. Approximate translation: "Back the f--- up!"
I flew into Iraq on a plane crewed by South Africans; I disembarked under the watchful gaze of an armed Fijian; and I queued for a visa with guest workers from South Asia. Now I'm on the road with a security detail from the former Soviet Union, courtesy of Erinys, a U.K. security firm.
Somehow, it seems appropriate to hear unprintable Russian in Baghdad.
Erinys recruits from around the globe, though most of the company's expatriate hires are British, North American, or South African. They also employ a handful of Slavs: One team is composed of ethnic Russians, another includes Serbians and Bosnians.
The United States relies on a multinational army of private security contractors to keep the occupation functioning. Their presence occasionally makes for lurid copy: Aegis Defence Service's "trophy video" (which appears to show security guards on the Baghdad Airport road firing automatic weapons at civilian cars) and the "Zapata incident" (when security contractors for a North Carolina engineering firm were given the orange-jumpsuit treatment by Marines after an alleged shooting spree) are recent examples. The scene in the parking garage at Baghdad Airport does little to diminish the road-warrior image: Mohawks, apparently, are still in fashion on some protective teams.
But the spicy tales of special operations veterans commanding salaries of $1,000 a day to guard VIPs mask a more prosaic reality. For the soldiers of cash-strapped former Soviet armies, it's the promise of a steady paycheck—and not a particularly fat one by Western standards—that brings them to Iraq.
I came here as a correspondent for Expert, a Russian newsmagazine, to tag along with Erinys' "Russians," a group of professional soldiers from the former Soviet Union. (Much like embedding with the military, covering the private security industry means agreeing to a few rules; Erinys, which has been quite open to the press, requested that I not identify operators or clients by name.)
Today we're driving to Camp Taji, a military base north of Baghdad, to pick up a civilian client working for the Army Corps of Engineers. Unfortunately, one of our heavily armored SUVs gets stuck traversing a low concrete barrier, and we have to make a U-turn and reverse course through central Baghdad.
Hence the urgent cursing. It's dangerous to stay in one place too long; the team members jump out of the trucks, rifles at the ready, and form a hasty perimeter around the convoy. A gunner steps out to halt oncoming traffic. He's at least 6 feet 5, wearing full body armor and wraparound shades; he doesn't point his Kalashnikov, but the Iraqi drivers still comply.
Fortunately, an Iraqi National Guard patrol is nearby. They quickly block all the civilian traffic merging from an access road and pull around their truck (a Ukrainian-made KrAZ), attach a chain, and tow the contractor vehicle free. The team members exchange parting handshakes, board their vehicles, and turn back down the access road. In the opposite lane, traffic is backed up all the way to the next intersection; another inconvenience of occupation.
The trip to Taji from downtown Baghdad should take half an hour, but driving on Iraqi roads is never a sure thing. Insurgents are designing increasingly lethal roadside bombs, and one of the newer worries for soldiers and security contractors are "explosively formed projectiles"—shaped-charge devices that can bore through an armored vehicle. The drive to Taji takes two hours.
"That road is incredibly dangerous—it's perfect for setting up an ambush," says one of the Russians. "The Americans and the Iraqis patrol Route Irish [the Baghdad Airport road] all the time, but on that road, you hardly see any patrols. By the end of the day, you're totally wound up."
There's little to do to unwind. After our trip, the Russians invite me to their Spartan accommodations inside the Erinys compound. They share a desktop computer for e-mailing friends and family; the satellite television is tuned to a Russian channel.
One of the men points at the screen: Russian President Vladimir Putin is presenting an award to a general with a monstrous gut. "The last time he was in a barracks was probably in basic training," he laughs.
A typical Erinys contract runs for just under four months: three months on, then three weeks off before rotating back. The company provides a round-trip ticket for home leave. "It's a good deal," says the tall gunner who halted traffic earlier in the day. "They'll buy you a ticket anywhere you want to go."
And with Erinys, your stay in Iraq is an all-inclusive deal. Unlike some firms, the company provides all the necessities: weapons, body armor, tactical gear, clothing. A small canteen provides three meals a day. All new hires—regardless of experience—go through a mandatory training program and receive additional weapons qualifications.
Most of the Russian team has been in Iraq for more than a year. New hires are often recruited through word of mouth. Personal recommendations are important: When someone acts as an informal sponsor, the theory goes, they won't recruit a person they don't trust with their own life.
At home, contractors from the former Soviet Union are reluctant to advertise their work (and offshore income) for fear of the tax authorities, and there's always uncertainty about whether someone will stir up a domestic scandal over their work in Iraq. The Aegis video, for instance, was picked up by the Russian media, which broadcast sensational reports about "mercenaries" in Iraq.
"We don't conduct combat operations, that's rule No. 1," says one of the more senior team members. "Our work is purely defensive."
That "defensive" work, however, exposes the team members—some of whom served in Chechnya and Afghanistan—to the daily threat of attack.
I later asked one of the team members, a veteran of Russia's war in the north Caucasus, how working in Iraq compares with Chechnya. Baghdad, to borrow Carol Reed's description of postwar Vienna, may be "bombed about a bit," but the damage seems limited next to the Chechen capital, Grozny, which was demolished by aerial bombardment and massed artillery fires.
He pauses for a moment.
"To tell the truth, I didn't expect it to be this bad."