In its effort to relieve overstretched U.S. troops in Iraq, the Bush administration has hired a private security company staffed with former henchmen of South Africa’s apartheid regime.
The reliance on apartheid enforcers was highlighted by an attack in Iraq last month that killed one South African security officer and wounded another who worked for the subsidiary of a firm called Erinys International. Both men once served in South African paramilitary units dedicated to the violent repression of apartheid opponents.
François Strydom, who was killed in the January 28 bombing of a hotel in Baghdad, was a former member of the Koevoet, a notoriously brutal counterinsurgency arm of the South African military that operated in Namibia during the neighboring state’s fight for independence in the 1980s. His colleague Deon Gouws, who was injured in the attack, is a former officer of the Vlakplaas, a secret police unit in South Africa.
“It is just a horrible thought that such people are working for the Americans in Iraq,” said Richard Goldstone, a recently retired justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and former chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
The Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and the Pentagon did not return requests for comment.
In Iraq, the U.S. government has tapped into the ever-growing pool of private security companies to provide a variety of defense services, including protecting oil sites and training Iraqi forces. Observers worry that a reliance on these companies and the resulting lack of accountability is a recipe for further problems in a volatile region.
Erinys Iraq, the subsidiary of the largely unknown security company called Erinys International, was awarded a two-year contract worth $80 million last August to protect 140 Iraqi oil installations and train some 6,500 Iraqi guards. It then subcontracted some of its security duties to a U.S. private security firm called SAS International.
The contract raised eyebrows in the industry because Erinys beat out better-known competitors. While the coalition authority has not released information on the tender, some of its officials were quoted as saying the bidding was fair.
Neither the authority nor Erinys responded to e–mail queries regarding the tender and ultimate contract.
In addition to fueling criticism over the lack of transparency of the bidding process in Iraq, the contract has also ignited political infighting in Baghdad between two key U.S. allies. The leader of the Iraqi National Accord, an exile group with close links to the CIA, has accused one of his main rivals of orchestrating the deal for his own purposes. Iyad Allawi told the Financial Times last December that Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress, had engineered the Erinys contract in order to set up a private militia that would end up undermining central authority over the vital oil sector.
Private security companies, including Erinys International, have served as a magnet for poorly paid and highly skilled South African security officers, according to a recent United Nations report and articles in the South African press. Headquartered in London with offices in Johannesburg and Dubai, Erinys International reportedly was established in the summer of 2002 by former British and South African security officials. Its Erinys Iraq subsidiary reportedly was set up last May in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion, when the oil infrastructure had become a prime target for looters.
Gouws, a former Pretoria police officer who then worked for the notorious Vlakplaas unit, was declared medically unfit and discharged from the police in December 1996 after a decade of service. That year, Gouws submitted an amnesty application to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body set up after the apartheid to investigate past atrocities. According to records of the commission, Gouws and a colleague were granted amnesty in May 1999 for admitting their involvement in the 1986 murder of regional minister and opposition leader Piet Ntuli.
Strydom belonged to the Kovoet unit, which had brutally suppressed the Namibian opposition. As Namibia edged toward its independence in the late 1980s, Koevoet was folded into the Vlakpaas unit.
According to Goldstone — who chaired South Africa’s Standing Commission of Inquiry Regarding Public Violence and Intimidation in the early 1990s — elements of those government-sponsored hit squads continued to foment trouble even after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and South Africa embarked on the road towards full-fledged democracy. In addition, several mercenary companies dispatched former South African soldiers to war-torn countries, including Angola and Sierra Leone.
This prompted the new South African government to launch a campaign to outlaw mercenary companies. The July 1998 Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act prohibits South Africans from direct participation as combatants in armed conflict for private gain. The law covers recruitment, training and financing, and applies to South Africans acting abroad as well.
South African security companies working outside the country are required by law to register with the National Conventional Arms Control Committee. According to South African lawmaker Raenette Taljaard, however, the committee did not receive an authorization application from Erinys International. “A lot of the South Africans doing mercenary work or working for private military companies were involved in Apartheid-era repression,” she said. “This is a big concern and it is just bad for South Africa’s reputation.”
The chairman of the committee said in a statement after the January 28 incident that any violation of the law would be referred to prosecutors for further investigation.