Baghdad - In Iraq, the postwar business boom is not oil.
It is security. In a country shaken by guerrilla warfare, crime and terrorism, where the United States is handing out almost $ 20 billion (£11 billion) in reconstruction contracts, thousands of well-armed private security contractors are making a fortune.
British companies are leading the field in the security gold-rush, drawing on a pool of trained former soldiers and experienced contractors to allow coalition officials, businessmen and journalists to travel Iraq's roads in some safety.
Yet the massive demand for protection, and the fear of almost daily killing of foreign workers, has overstretched market supply, spawning an upsurge in cowboy contractors and drawing on a pool of international guns for hire that, according to reputable firms, are as much a liability to themselves and Iraqis as to their clients.
While many British groups opt for the low-key approach, with pistols hidden under shirt tails, other companies have their men brandish submachine guns as they go about their business. One American group riddled an empty building with hundreds of rounds after a bullet ricocheted near them, and cleared traffic jams in Baghdad's clogged streets at gunpoint.
Another company is alleged to have employed a former British soldier convicted of passing on classified information to loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.
"There are some ropey characters out there," said Duncan Bullivant, head of the small British security company Henderson Risk, which has about 40 well-trained employees providing security for United Nations staff in Iraq. "There are quite a few companies knocking about who know that if Iraq had not happened, they wouldn't be here now."
The demand has also created openings for individual operators who would otherwise not be employable. Some South Africans with murky backgrounds in their country's former apartheid regime may face legal proceedings when they return because of an anti-mercenary law, but still they come to Iraq, calculating the handsome pay off against the likelihood of prosecution.
With the killing this week of a serving British soldier, Colour Sergeant Christopher McDonald, in an attack on his vehicle in Mosul, there are growing concerns that the wages of about £400 a day could lure troops away from the Army at a time when they are most needed in peacekeeping missions abroad.
That fear is echoed by some of the more established contractors, who refuse to take on men still serving in the Armed Forces. "I find it mind-numbing that the Ministry of Defence doesn't stop this," Mr Bullivant said, adding that some headhunting companies specifically targeted elite regiments such as the SAS.
The US military has created much of the demand for security guards. It has outsourced many formerly military functions to private contractors, who, in turn, need protection.
"The military doesn't have the means to look after hundreds of government workers and contractors. What they're looking for is an intelligent solution," said James Blount, whose Control Risk Group guards British officials here.
That solution is expensive -an estimated 10 per cent of the vast reconstruction contracts are going towards security, with companies charging up to Pounds 5,000 a day for a four-man armed escort with two armoured vehicles to make sure that investors arrive at meetings alive.
For some, the costs are too high: cheaper solutions can mean travelling in vulnerable "soft-skin" vehicles, such as the one in which Colour Sergeant McDonald was riding when gunmen killed him and a Canadian colleague on Monday. Last week two Finnish businessmen were shot dead in their car in Baghdad, apparently travelling without an armed escort.
Some British companies operate on a small scale with elite British forces. Others, such as the newly founded Erinys, have built up a vast force of 14,000 British-trained Iraqi guards to protect Iraq's oil infrastructure.
Many of the 5,000 or so private security contractors estimated to be operating in Iraq use former soldiers from the Third World, in particular retired Gurkhas, to stand for long hours in front of coalition bases or contractors' hotels in blazing temperatures. The London-based Global Risk Strategy brought in an entire battalion of Fijian soldiers to provide security for the distribution of Iraq's new currency last year.
Like the coalition troops who regularly fight insurgents, the Western security contractors are largely above the law.It is unlikely that a guard would face legal proceedings if he accidentally shot an Iraqi civilian, one contractor said.
Close protection teams typically stay with their client the whole time that they are in Iraq, living in the same hotels, reconnoitring roads and keeping in touch with operation bases, which dedicate some of their staff to gathering intelligence. It is not a glamorous life: much time is spent waiting around for clients, sitting in hotel lobbies or four-wheel-drives in car parks. Burly men in flak jackets, pistols strapped to their legs and MP5 submachine guns are a common sight in coalition compounds and behind the blast walls of well-defended hotels.
The industry bubble may soon burst, however: when the coalition hands over authority to an Iraqi government in July, contractors expect pressure to employ more Iraqis, while licensing and accountability may curb the "feeding frenzy", as one contractor described the current market.
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