A new spotlight has been thrown on the army of private military operators in Iraq, following the emergence of footage that appears to show security guards shooting up civilian cars on "Route Irish," the notorious Baghdad Airport road.
The so-called trophy video now circulating widely on the Internet shows a series of clips of shots being fired from the back of a utility vehicle, set to a soundtrack of the Elvis Presley song “Mystery Train.” In one clip, Iraqi civilians are seen fleeing after a targeted car swerves and crashes into another vehicle.
Anti-mercenary campaigners have condemned the footage, which first emerged on a Web site belonging to a former employee of Aegis Defense Services, one of the largest private security companies operating in Iraq.
"If the video does turn out to involve Aegis personnel, it provides a clear demonstration that such mercenary services have little to do with providing security for ordinary Iraqis, and everything to do with profiting from war at the expense of human rights and innocent lives," said Mike Lewis of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. "Private military companies are even less accountable than regular armies privatizing war makes it even harder to stop the abuse and killing of innocent civilians. It’s time that private military companies were properly regulated, not actively encouraged by the UK and U.S. governments."
Aegis announced this week that it has established a formal board of inquiry, in cooperation with the U.S. military authorities, to investigate "whether the footage has any connection with the company and, should this prove to be the case, under what circumstances any incident took place."
"Aegis is contracted in Iraq by the U.S. government to provide a wide variety of services including, critically, the protection of both civilian and military personnel traveling throughout the country, in a very hostile environment under circumstances of often great personal danger," the company said in a statement.
"Typically in one week, Aegis carries out over 100 escort assignments covering approximately 18,000 miles. Aegis’ personnel have substantial military and peacekeeping experience and all operate under strict and accountable Rules of Engagement of the Coalition Military (CENTCOM), and the U.S. Department of State, as well as Coalition Provisional Authority Order Memo 17."
"These Rules of Engagement allow for a structured escalation of force to include opening fire on civilian vehicles under certain circumstances. All incidents of the use of such escalation of force which includes the use of firearms are logged and investigated to ensure that there has been strict adherence to the Rules of Engagement. Should any incident recorded on the video footage have involved Aegis personnel, this too will be subject to scrutiny by the Board of Inquiry."
The trophy video scandal comes at a damaging time for Aegis, which has been trying to shake off the mercenary image of its founder and chief executive Lt. Col. Tim Spicer. The company recently acquired a new chairman, the former chief of the UK Defense Staff, Lord Inge, who heads an expanded board that also includes former U.S. National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane.
The video had been available for some months at www.AegisIraq.co.uk, an unofficial Web site whose existence was originally only known to employees of Aegis and other contractors.
The sites contents include a purported message from Lt. Col. Spicer that warns,
"[W]hilst I am not concerned about this site as yet, if it develops into something other than a light-hearted pressure valve I will take a much greater interest.
"Remember that your job and those of your colleagues indirectly relies on the maintenance of our contract. Refrain from posting anything which is detrimental to the company since this could result in the loss or curtailment of our contract with resultant loss for everybody."
Lt. Col. Spicers fears appear to have been borne out as the site developed. Posts on its message board included claims of poor weapons handling by Aegis staff, along with allegations of widespread drink and drug abuse, and critical commentary on the trophy video.
One post states, "Respectively, that footage is the most damning footage of trigger happy body count hunters that I have witnessed, it has done nothing but show the company and the lads it employs in a bad light, and if I was looking to employ a company that would certainly ensure that Aegis didn’t get the contract."
The message board was pulled from the site after its address emerged in the press, but not before it had come to the attention of longtime critics of Aegis.
As Antiwar.com reported last year, the companys contract with the Pentagon has encountered strong opposition on Capitol Hill because of Lt. Col. Spicers record in Northern Ireland, where two soldiers under his command were convicted of murdering an unarmed 18-year-old, Peter McBride.
Irish human rights group the Pat Finucane Center (PFC) also raised Spicers record with his previous firm Sandline, which breached a UN arms embargo in Sierra Leone and embarked on a failed intervention in Papua New Guinea that led to a military coup.
As a result of lobbying by the PFC and the Irish National Caucus, U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Christopher Dodd, and Charles Schumer demanded an investigation of the contract in August last year.
"In light of the recent revelations of abuses of detainees in Iraq, it is important that U.S. actions, whether by military personnel or contractors, have respect for the law," the five senators wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "It is troubling that the government would award a contract to an individual with a history of supporting excessive use of force against a civilian population."
The lobbying campaign has since continued. PFC staff returned from their most recent trip to Washington last month, only days before emergence of the alleged Aegis video.
"A number of members of Congress expressed concern and indeed shock at the circumstances surrounding the contract," PFC spokesman Paul OConnor said this week. "The latest allegations will certainly increase the fears that this contract has been awarded to the wrong person and the wrong firm."
"We have contacted the U.S. consul-general in Belfast today, and directed his attention to the allegations, and to the message board on the unofficial website, where there are allegations of high rates of drug and alcohol abuse by mercenaries on contract to the U.S. government."
Although Aegis holds one of the largest private military contracts in Iraq, there are signs that the company is becoming isolated within the sector. It has reportedly been rebuffed in an attempt to join industry group the International Peace Operations Association.
The latest controversy looks set to further damage Aegis ability to win allies at a time when it is facing the prospect of regulation in its home market.
The British Foreign Office is due to produce a white paper on private military companies early next year. The footage of security guards blasting civilians on the highways of Iraq may now provide the backdrop to that debate.