It was getting toward dusk on the Baghdad Airport road, and, as we passed through the last airport checkpoint and headed for the Green Zone, I stared nervously out the window of our armored Toyota Land Cruiser. On one of my past trips to Baghdad, in May 2005, the ten-mile airport road, known by the U.S. military as "Route Irish," was still an infamous symbol of the country's instability. Hundreds of people had been killed or injured on it. I'd been trussed up in Kevlar, warned to keep my head below the window, and jammed into the back seat with a large box of Kwik-Klot blood coagulant. "Anything happens, Hussein will push you down to the floor," my British escort had told me, as the driver careened down the road at Mad Max speed. "Don't get up until we tell you to." But this time, my three escorts, all British exsoldiers, hadn't even bothered to give me a vest, and we cruised at a leisurely pace along a road that seemed as normal as Interstate 95. "I can't even remember the last time the highway was attacked," said one of my protectors, a burly, tattooed Glaswegian. "But don't publicize that fact. We might be out of a job."
For a correspondent returning to Baghdad after a two-year absence, the changes on the ground are striking. It's not just the absence of the horrific soundtrack of daily car-bomb blasts that accompanied my last visit, or the fact that I could sit with my Iraqi staff for a 90-minute lunch in the popular Al Lathiqiya restaurant in Arasat Al Hindiya without fear of abduction. Improvements in security--largely the result of both the "surge" and the alliance between U.S. forces and some former Sunni insurgents in the battle against Al Qaeda in Iraq--have generated a collective psychic relief. There is a sense in Baghdad, for the first time since early 2004, that stability is an attainable goal.
But the transformation has left one group decidedly unhappy: Western security contractors. "Nobody is willing to pay the kind of money they once did, " grumbles a former British soldier who ran security for a major U.S. media organization in Baghdad but returned home to London last spring because his contract wasn't renewed. "The opportunities have been drying up for months."
At their peak, in 2006, there were more than 40,000 foreign security contractors working in Iraq, or about one for every three American soldiers. The twice-daily Royal Jordanian Airlines flights into Baghdad were packed with a gallery of mercenaries from around the world: Nepalese ex-Gurkhas, former French Legionnaires, hardened warriors of South Africa's apartheid regime, Australian bush rangers, American ex-Green Berets, and British SAS officers, all drawn by the promise of $15,000-per-month salaries, generous perks (stays en route at top hotels in Amman), and a Rambo culture that let them live out their most swashbuckling military fantasies. Tearing through the streets of Baghdad in their armored Toyota Land Cruisers with the barrels of their semiautomatic weapons pointed menacingly out the windows, the mercs basked in the knowledge that they were guaranteed immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
Meanwhile, worsening suicide bombings and roadside-bomb attacks kept the prices charged by the mercenaries soaring: In February 2007, for example, the security company AKE quoted me a one-way fare of $3,700 for the drive from Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone. The service included two armored cars, one for client and one for spotters, along with two armed expatriates and six Iraqis. Rides to the airport weren't the only big payday. One private security firm, Custer Battles, scored a $16.5 million Coalition Provisional Authority contract to guard Baghdad International Airport, then allegedly submitted phony invoices to the CPA for forklifts, trucks, and other equipment, overcharging by at least $6.5 million, according to two former employees who brought a suit against the company.
But, with the success of last year's surge, the Mahdi Army's cease-fire, the routing of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the growing assertiveness of the Iraqi government, all this began to change. Early last year, the security firm hired by the British Embassy cut its daily rate for Western contractors from $700 to $350 per day, and other groups employed by diplomats and Western media have followed suit. Moreover, many organizations have turned to a growing pool of well-trained Iraqis. "They can get them for about $1,000 a month, while the average salary is still about $600 per day per person for a Westerner," the former British soldier tells me. Probably the most striking sign of the new economy are the nose-diving prices for the airport road highway run. U.S. military sweeps through the insurgent-filled neighborhoods around the airport, intensified patrols by the Iraqi army, and fencing of the most dangerous stretches have caused the violence on the once-deadly highway to drop precipitously: At the height of the violence, in April 2005, there were dozens of attacks; now months go by without a single incident. Though a few stubborn companies like AKE have refused to lower their prices, most companies have cut their price to between $1,000 and $2,000. Edinburgh International, based in Baghdad's Green Zone, does the shuttle for a mere $875.
It's not only prices that have taken a beating. The culture of lawlessness--or, in the mercs' eyes, their freedom to operate--has been seriously curtailed. Last September, Blackwater agents sprayed a traffic circle in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood with gunfire, killing 17 civilians; American officials whisked the contractors, who were immune to prosecution in Iraq, out of the country. (In April 2008, the United States renewed its contract with Blackwater, despite an FBI probe into excessive force by its gunmen.) "[T]hings got more difficult for the rest of us [after that]," one security man told Lara Marlowe of the Irish Times in May. "We call it Blackwater fallout. Before, we could fire on a vehicle if it sidled up to us. Now we're forbidden from shooting before they open fire." This month, during negotiations for a new security agreement with the Iraqi government, the United States reportedly agreed to lift immunity for foreign security contractors, making them subject to prosecution under Iraqi law.
The mercenaries' reputation for shooting first and asking questions later has caused a backlash that goes far beyond Iraq. As many as 4,000 South Africans are now working in Iraq as private security consultants. The majority served as policemen and soldiers under white-minority rule, and the presence of so many combat-hardened apartheid warriors has stirred concern within the African National Congress-led government about the image the country is projecting overseas. Last year, South Africa's deputy minister of foreign affairs, Aziz Pahad, called the employment of so many South African security forces in Iraq "of deep concern to the government." And, in November 2007, President Thabo Mbeki signed the Prohibition of Mercenary Activities Act, which tightens restrictions on South Africans working as mercenaries or private security contractors in a foreign country.
"The law hasn't been tested yet, but we're all anxious," I was told by Hennie, a towering, heavily muscled security guard from Durbanville, an Afrikaans-speaking suburb of Cape Town, as we stood together in the 110-degree heat outside Baghdad's Ministry of the Interior last month. Hennie fought in Namibia and Angola and, two years ago, came to Baghdad as an employee of Reed, a Virginia-based security firm. Now his employment contract is running out, and he's worried about being arrested if he returns home. "Thousands of us weren't brought up to do anything but this work," Hennie said, sweating profusely in his heavy flak jacket.
Thankfully for the mercenaries (if not for the rest of the world), moving by road anywhere outside Baghdad remains a risky business. Westerners traveling on the highway between, for instance, Baghdad and Salahaddin Province north of the capital stand a good chance of being abducted by Sunni insurgents. "There are so many small pockets where you can't operate around the country," the London- based security consultant tells me. "You could fall victim to a roadside hijack, get held for ransom, run into violent crime like you've got in downtown L.A."
Even so, the good times are clearly on the wane. More and more journalists, for instance, are shunning the still-inflated prices charged for the airport run. "The road has been totally safe for a couple of years," one photographer tells me. "That's the mercs' dirty little secret." On his last trip out of Iraq, he said, he hired an ordinary taxi at the Al Hamra Hotel, rode it to a parking lot just outside Baghdad Airport, then climbed aboard a shuttle bus to the terminal. His total cost for the journey: $55.
Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign correspondent based in Berlin.