Staff at the Australian embassy in Baghdad could be under the watch of inexperienced guards with limited background checks and inadequate training from tomorrow, due to an 11th-hour scramble to recruit a new protection detail, according to members of the elite security force protecting the post.
The private security company responsible for guarding the embassy has been forced to embark on an emergency recruitment drive in Britain after losing two-thirds of its 67-strong protection team in a dispute about safety and security.
The Australian has confirmed that up to 40 Australian protection specialists will be flown out of Iraq tomorrow after accusing their employer, Dubai-based Unity Resources Group, of risking lives by scrimping on arms and protective equipment, bypassing detailed security checks and providing inferior medical support and insurance cover.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has recently awarded URG a new five-year contract, worth nearly $51 million, to provide personal protection for embassy staff from Friday until the end of 2020. Tender documents show the new contract is barely half the $101m URG was paid to provide security for the five years from January 1, 2011 to today.
It is understood the majority of personnel who will leave refused to sign the new work contracts in protest, while at least three others who signalled they would be prepared to sign on again, but were known by management to have complained about conditions, have been told their positions will be filled.
Staffers who remain on the ground in Baghdad are becoming increasingly anxious and do not believe that URG will be able to follow the security protocols required by the DFAT contract in the short time remaining.
Sources claim the limited time to recruit the new protection specialists does not leave enough time to conduct proper background checks, including medical and psychological screening.
They also fear the new recruits will lack sufficient training in the protection of a diplomatic post in areas such as weapons handling and close personal protection.
“January 1st will bring in a swath of inexperience and risk at a time when Baghdad is going through chaotic and unpredictable change,” one senior protection officer said. “URG HQ and local project managers’ rushed intent of getting bums on seats at any cost to have the numbers for January 1 will result in deadly consequences. They will not have the right people to deliver the high-quality protection the Australian embassy staff in Baghdad rely on.”
URG, which was founded by former Australian special forces commander Gordon Conroy, declined to respond to detailed questions from The Australian.
DFAT responded to detailed questions by saying its longstanding practice was not to comment on security arrangements at its overseas missions. Sources in the department disputed the claim that URG was short 40 workers but would not comment on the concerns raised by URG staff.
“The Australian government places the highest priority on the safety of all its personnel, especially those in high-threat locations such as Kabul and Baghdad,” a DFAT official said.
“DFAT has full confidence that our security contractors in Kabul and Baghdad will continue to provide a high standard of security services to Australia’s embassies there, as has been the case in the past.”
The official said that, through a competitive tender process, the department had determined that URG “had the required technical capability to effectively deliver the requirements of the contracts while providing value for money and a high level of service”.
The Australian revealed on Monday that protection personnel presented URG management with a written deposition outlining a series of grievances about safety and standards. The staff — who refer privately to the company as “Use Your Own Gear” because they have upgraded their own equipment after being issued with ageing AK 47s without optic sights and cheap, locally made vests — accused the company of “strong-arming” a 47 per cent pay cut. They warned that grievances had become “so great and the possible consequences for the Australian embassy considered so egregious” that URG staff were considering strike action.
The situation has deteriorated and with the deadline for new employment contracts set for December 9, URG management has chosen to turn to Britain to fill the necessary positions to commence its new contract with DFAT.
The Australian has been told that URG management in Iraq has also been “cold-calling” operators already working in security on commercial oil contracts in Basra, in southern Iraq, in an attempt to avoid further recruitment delays created by the need for visa applications.
This has particularly worried protection staff, who argue that there is a clear professional distinction between working commercial oil and gas contracts and “looking after oil executives compared to a diplomatic mission protecting heads of government and prime ministers”.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a number of URG protection staff claim Australians are being replaced with primarily British contractors who are not subject to the same Australian security clearance as Australian nationals. Of those left, just five are believed to be Australian.
DFAT requires ongoing staff in Australia or on long-term overseas postings to have negative vetting 2 clearances — formerly known as top secret — which can take up to six months and cost an average $2023 for each DFAT staff member to complete but much more when done for outside contractors. The requirement for URG contractors is a minimum negative vetting level 1 — formerly known as secret.
The workers claim the emergency recruitment program means new staff will be in place in the new year without undergoing proper interview, medical checks, psychological screening and police background checks. They will also miss weapons handling tests, usually conducted over three or four days to filter out inexperience.
They also allege the short timeframe will mean the abandonment of an induction program to ensure new recruits can be held to standard to work on personal protection teams. Deployment into a new high-risk environment will also occur without briefings on existing operating procedures and training.
The workers claim contracts were sent by URG to the British recruits for immediate signing but without provision of details such as indemnity insurance and medical insurance cover. The use of British workers will result in further savings for URG as return tickets for the four weeks off, six weeks on rota are much cheaper from Baghdad to Britain than flights to Australia.