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Our Hitmen In Iraq

Good money prompts retired Indian servicemen to sign up as coalition 'irregulars'

Our Hitmen In Iraq
Atul Loke
Our Hitmen In Iraq
"The government of India has given careful thought to the question of sending Indian troops to Iraq. Were there to be an explicit UN mandate, the government could consider the deployment of troops in Iraq."
—Official statement of the ministry of external affairs, rejecting the US demand for deploying Indian soldiers in Iraq, June 14, 2003

The Indian government cannot be held guilty of sending its troops, either covertly or otherwise, to fight for Uncle Sam. But, shockingly, with the full knowledge of senior officials in the army, Indian ex-servicemen are being drafted to serve under the US and British forces in Iraq. Though the Indian soldiers are not exactly part of the coalition force, they are attached to units and are responsible for guarding key installations like oil wells and refineries. The job in peacetime would not be seen as risk-prone. But given the ground situation in Iraq, it's fraught with danger. As a senior officer puts it, "Guarding oil installations is no easy task. It's no passive security job. It's like a civil war there and you need all your combat skills to work and survive."

Much of the recruitment is done by security agencies and outfits run by retired officers. There are no figures available on how many retired men are serving in Iraq. But the number could run into thousands. This January itself, Trig Guardforce, a Mumbai-based security company, sent three officers and 40 men for deployment at a port in Iraq. Since then, it has been asked to identify 1,000 more retired soldiers. Capt Swaran Salaria, chairman of Trig Guardforce, has confirmed this to Outlook. Says he: "There is a huge demand for Indian ex-servicemen in Iraq because of their professionalism."

For a retired soldier the money is attractive. The selected candidates are offered a two-year extendible contract. The salary, depending on rank, is anywhere between Rs 22,000 to Rs 1.75 lakh a month (see table). In most cases, those drafted are insured for sums ranging from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 50 lakh. Boarding, lodging and medical attention is free. To fit the bill, it is essential to be below 55 yrs of age and medically sound. Officers who have taken premature retirement and are, therefore, relatively younger are the first choice for the recruitment agencies. Also in demand are those who have fought a war or served in insurgency-affected areas.

That army headquarters is aware of this is clear from a circular it issued in February. In it, all the five commands were asked to check the practice of retired personnel serving in Iraq since "it goes against government policy". A senior officer contacted by Outlook echoed the apprehensions of many at army headquarters: "Why should they (the US) be asking for our ex-servicemen when the government has refused to send regular troops?"

Also, serving officers feel that deployment of ex-servicemen in Iraq under US command can lead to leakage of tactical information. "This is mercenary stuff. When earning money is the sole intention, an ex-serviceman is likely to part with sensitive information he was privy to while in service," says a senior officer.

What Trig Guardforce and other agencies are looking for are retired soldiers with combat skills capable of guarding installations like ports, oil wells, military camps or even fuel and food convoys. Outsourcing much of its security detail to private contractors is convenient for the US and British forces as the actions of private security personnel can be easily denied and their deaths not included in war casualty lists.

The army got wind of the recruitments when last December Trig Guardforce approached some retired army officers in Chandigarh with offers to work in Iraq. While some balked at the prospect of 'becoming mercenaries', many responded favourably. One of them was the director of Western Command's Ex-Servicemen's Placement Cell at the Chandimandir cantonment. He even shortlisted some retired sepoys and NCOs from the cell's database but the army authorities took strong objection to this.

Consequently, the Western Command at Chandimandir issued instructions to organisations dealing with ex-servicemen, such as the sainik boards of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan and the army's ex-servicemen placement cells all over the northern region, to ensure that Gulf-based placement agencies do not recruit ex-servicemen. Military intelligence networks were also alerted so that they could detect any westward movement.

But the recruitment drive continues. Only now, it is discreet. The system works like this: US and British security contractors in Iraq hand out subcontracts to smaller companies, some of them Indian. Iraq-bound ex-servicemen are given visas for Kuwait. They are then taken to US bases there and are then sent onwards to Iraq after passing through checkposts on the Kuwait-Iraq border. "Our role is with the US army, to deploy personnel for security duty and take care of day-to-day normal duties around the camps. We are working under the direct supervision of the US forces present at the place," says Capt Salaria.

An outfit like Gemini Veteran Global Placements run by Maj Gen (retd) Tirlok Singh in Delhi's Nanakpura is recruiting personnel for active work with the US forces. Singh claims to have selected 350 ex-servicemen (mainly sepoys) for duties in Iraq and they are expected to leave sometime in June once elections are held there. Says Singh: "Once elections are over, there might be some kind of UN supervision in Iraq. Since it's yet to be decided whether the people hired by us will be paid by UN agencies or the US army, we've to wait till June."

According to Singh, the choice of personnel is left to the US army. "I am recruiting security guards for a US base in Kuwait. They may be taken to Iraq from there. Our principal contractors in Iraq are coordinating provision of manpower for security and combat duties. The men are being selected by the office of a US general on the basis of the bio-data which I send them from here." According to an estimate, private security firms have become the third-largest international contributor of forces for the war effort in Iraq after the US and British troops.

Though army authorities are dismayed at the steady deployment of its ex-servicemen in the Iraqi war theatre, organisations dealing with them, surprisingly, have no qualms about it. Says Brig J.S. Jaswal (retd), director, Sainik Welfare (Punjab): "I see absolutely nothing wrong in retired defence personnel taking up employment in Iraq. What's wrong? Pensions here aren't enough to provide a sepoy's family three square meals a day." Pensions are a sore point with most retired servicemen. But is it reason enough for them to be going against the grain of the nation's Iraq policy?
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