Top army commanders have drawn up a series of extraordinary "countermeasures" to try to stop highly trained soldiers being lured to private military companies.
Such is their concern about the loss of experienced troops attracted to the private sector by large pay packets that they advise highlighting the number of people killed in Iraq while working for the companies. They add that staff from the companies should be banned from British bases.
Their concerns are contained in a classified memo, seen by the Guardian, which has been sent to commanders of infantry regiments.
Suggestions include making soldiers aware of "perils of work in the PMC [private military companies] environment". The memo adds: "Highlight losses. 14 killed in May this year in Iraq alone".
It says that contracts are generally short-term and stresses that "the PMCs make limited or no pension provision or life insurance cover for their 'operators'". Protection and equipment provided to PMC personnel are "less than good", says the memo. They have "no armour" and their weapons are of "poor quality", and "professional standards are, in general, not high", the memo adds.
In the attempt to put soldiers off leaving the army and joining PMCs, infantry commanders are told that there is no "moral commitment" to company staff when things go wrong. The memo says that on one occasion, two British PMC operators were killed outside the entrance of an army base and "were left to rot for a whole day before being collected".
Where possible, infantry commanders are advised, "do not give access to bases to PMC staff".
The memo says that while the number of soldiers who have recently left the army to join PMCs - from an estimated 30 to about 140 - has been insignificant in terms of overall resignations, "there are some hot spots where momentum has been established."
Armed forces chiefs are concerned in particular about SAS troops being seduced by PMCs which are reported to be offering salaries of $30,000 (£17,000) a month.
There are estimated to be about 30,000 private security personnel in Iraq - 4,000 more than the number of British ground troops deployed at the height of the war. Without them, the US and Britain would be under pressure to deploy more soldiers in Iraq.
Britain hires personnel from private security firms to protect its diplomatic staff in Iraq. PMCs could take on a bigger role there when Britain and the US start reducing the number of troops in Iraq, almost certainly next year. The companies are lobbying the UN to try to persuade it to use them for peacekeeping duties.
Michael Ancram, the shadow defence secretary, said yesterday: "It has been three years since the government published details of the options regarding the regulation of private military companies, yet ministers have failed to find a solution."
He added: "Private military companies have an important role to play in Iraq, and their role is likely to become even more high-profile as the coalition scales back troop numbers. The British government should be looking to clear up any grey areas in the role and accountability of PMCs as a matter of urgency."
A Foreign Office green paper three years ago spelt out the difficulties in regulating and licensing PMCs. One problem is the lack of recognised status in international law when staff are captured.
According to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent monitoring body, 28 of the 252 PMC staff killed in Iraq were British. Two were killed in Basra last month.
The Ministry of Defence says the army had a duty of care and it would give "any information it can" to help guide a soldier's "future career direction".
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