MOYOCK, N.C. — Nestled inconspicuously amid the pines and horse farms of northeastern North Carolina lies a small but increasingly important part of the U.S. campaign to stabilize Iraq.
Here at the 5,000-acre training ground of the security firm Blackwater USA, scores of former military commandos, police officers and regular civilians are trained each month to join the lucrative but often deadly work of providing security for corporations and governments in the toughest corners of the globe.
On Wednesday, four employees of a Blackwater unit — all of them former U.S. military Special Operations personnel — were killed in an ambush in the central Iraqi city of Fallujah, their bodies mutilated and dragged through the streets by chanting crowds.
Though there have been private militaries since the dawn of war, the modern corporate version got its start in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, many nations were sharply reducing their militaries, leaving millions of soldiers without employment. Many of them went into business doing what they knew best: providing security or training others to do the same.
The proliferation of ethnic conflicts and civil wars in places like the Balkans, Haiti and Liberia provided employment for many new firms. Business grew rapidly after the Sept. 11 attacks prompted corporate executives and government officials to bolster their security overseas.
But it was the occupation of Iraq that brought explosive growth to the young industry, experts said. There are now dozens, perhaps hundreds, of private military firms around the world. As many as two dozen companies, employing as many as 15,000 people, are working in Iraq, providing security details for diplomats, private contractors involved in reconstruction, nonprofit organizations and journalists, experts and officials said. They also protect oil fields, banks, residential compounds and office buildings.
Though many of the firms are American, companies from Britain, South Africa and elsewhere are providing security in Iraq. Blackwater trainees guard L. Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S. civilian administration in Iraq.
To meet the rising demand, the security firms are dangling salaries ranging from $100,000 to nearly $200,000 to entice senior military Special Operations forces to switch careers.
Critics say the rapid growth of the industry raises concerns. There is little regulation of the quality of training or recruitment by private firms, they say. The result may be inexperienced, poorly prepared and weakly led units playing vital roles in combat situations. Even elite former commandos may not be well-trained for every danger, those critics say.