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Casualties of S. Africa's silent war in Iraq

Desperation drives kin of four abducted mercenaries to speak out. An exodus of highly paid guns alarms, embarrasses Pretoria.

October 14, 2007|Paul Salopek | Chicago Tribune

pretoria, south africa -- Andre Durant, a policeman from this leafy African capital, was kidnapped more than nine months ago by unidentified gunmen in Iraq. Apart from one brief phone call, in which Durant managed to shout a strangled "I love you" to his wife, he hasn't been heard from since.

There are no yellow ribbons trimming Durant's quiet suburban Pretoria house. There has been no drumbeat of sympathetic news coverage about his case. Durant's family, like the families of three other South Africans who were snatched with him in a Baghdad ambush in December, has maintained an anguished and puzzling silence for the better part of a year.

And in that hush lies a clue to this nation's murky and angst-ridden participation in America's military adventure in the Middle East: Durant is just one of thousands of South African police officers and soldiers, most of them white veterans of the old apartheid regime, who have left their jobs to work as private security contractors in Iraq -- a semi-clandestine exodus of hired guns that has alternately embarrassed and alarmed the pacifist government here.

"Maybe in the States soldiers' wives can talk about these things to ease their loss," said Lourika Durant, who has kept a low profile for months not only to safeguard negotiations for her husband's release, but because of the stigma attached to operatives who freelance in a war that is deeply unpopular in South Africa. "Here we must suffer alone, without making waves."

The Sept. 16 killings of as many as 17 Iraqi civilians by guards employed by Blackwater USA has rekindled debate in the United States over the propriety of outsourcing security responsibilities in Iraq to scores of private security companies. But the acrimony in America can't begin to match the political hand-wringing that surrounds the issue in South Africa.

Sensitive to its apartheid-era reputation for exporting soldiers of fortune to wars across Africa, the young, black-led government in Pretoria recently drafted an anti-mercenary bill that would criminalize virtually all of its citizens working in Iraq.

And as the war grinds into its fifth year, there is growing concern that Iraq's drain on skilled police and military personnel may be crippling the nation's elite security services. Local media reports warn that tactical police units in major cities are being thinned by the stampede of officers to Baghdad. And a former South African military officer who runs his own security company says that most of the nation's best special-forces trainers are on the U.S. contracting payroll in Iraq.

Meanwhile, South Africa's national police force has begun offering its most experienced staff monthly bonuses of about $900, in part to staunch the flight of talent.

"We don't deny that there has been an exodus," police spokesman Selby Bokaba said. "We simply can't compete with the obscene salaries that our officers are being offered in Iraq."

Wages for private contractors who work as bodyguards, convoy escorts and oil-field security workers in Iraq average $10,000 a month -- more than 10 times the pay of a South African army or police captain.

The number of South Africans who have signed up for such hazardous duty is not known. The Foreign Affairs Ministry estimates 10,000, but industry experts and U.S. contracting firms say it's more like 2,000 to 3,000. Still, even the lower estimate would make South Africans the third-largest contingent of armed foreigners deployed to battle the insurgency in Iraq -- behind Washington's closest military ally, Britain, with 5,000 troops.

A Blackwater spokeswoman, Anne Tyrrell, said that no South Africans were currently employed by her company in Iraq. She said the company's main contract, guarding State Department officials, requires a U.S. security clearance. Industry sources said most of South Africa's guns for hire rent their services to British companies, or to U.S. companies with strong South African ties, such as OSSI-Safenet or Reed Inc.

Their presence in Iraq isn't new. South Africans armed with submachine guns were guarding Washington's first proconsul, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, within days of Saddam Hussein's fall. About 27 to 30 of its citizens have died in Iraq so far, the South African government says.

"The Americans like us because we're well-trained and used to working in rustic conditions," said Alex de Witt, who spent 18 months in Iraq protecting construction sites run by KBR, the U.S. engineering giant. "But there's a political cost to going: The government here doesn't like it."

The root of that distrust dates back to the mid-1990s, when thousands of white officers abandoned South Africa's security agencies during the transition from apartheid to majority black rule. Many unemployed soldiers and police joined private security companies that became embroiled in African wars from Angola to Sierra Leone.

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