Here’s the ideal job. There is only one drawback – it’s in Iraq

Mica Misic is a muscular Austrian of Serb extraction. Last summer he took his camper van and armoured it himself with mild steel plates and drove it to Baghdad. For weeks he stayed at the Sheraton Hotel – filling his time running by the Tigris or pushing weights at the Palestine Hotel opposite while he sought a job as a bodyguard.

These days Misic runs his own security team for a large US contractor, earning more than $500 a day. And although gunmen take regular pot shots at the compound where he is based, Misic is happy. His earnings have allowed him to buy the black Porsche that sits in the hotel car park and are building him a house on land he owns in Goa.

He is not alone. Thousands of others have been drawn by the lure of Iraq’s Klondike: would-be security guards and laundry men, oil workers and sanitation engineers – businessmen hoping to cash in on the reconstruction bonanza.

But while the money is very good – some companies offer between three and five times the usual salary – it increasingly comes at a high risk: of being kidnapped or murdered by Iraq’s increasingly ubiquitous anti-opposition forces. And in the front line are the security workers from around the globe.

The risks they face were highlighted by the killing last week of 36-year-old Fabrizio Quattrocchi by armed insurgents. One of four Italian security guards kidnapped and held hostage to back up demands for the withdrawal of Italian troops, he was shown with his colleagues in a video moments before being pushed towards a shallow grave and shot in the head. Quattrocchi’s last, shouted words as he struggled to pull off his hood, were: ‘Now I am going to show you how an Italian dies.’

His death was only the latest in a series of killings of security guards and contractors that began a fortnight ago when four US security guards were killed and publicly mutilated after their car was ambushed in Falluja. The violence underlines the reason why ex-soldiers of the SAS and SBS can command such high salaries to guard their clients.

In the first rush – after the fall of Baghdad – you would see French and Belgian ex-paratroops singing regimental songs in the Sheraton restaurant; steroid-pumped former US special forces; solitary Russian veterans of Chechnya; US women who were once police dog handlers; and scores of former British soldiers varying in age from 25 to 50.

Then there are the Gurkhas – who stand impassively outside the entrance to the office of US ambassador Paul Bremer and guard the hotel floors occupied by the biggest US contractors like Kellog, and Brown and Root. Some of the big companies – like Armorgroup, with its contracts, code of conduct and insurance – have a reputation for professionalism, but others are more flaky.

A solid-looking Briton in his early fifties, Richard does not want to give his second name. He could pass as a prosperous businessman, but is in security.

‘There are some real cowboys here,’ he says. ‘You see them showing off their guns and strutting about. They are inviting trouble for their clients. They draw attention to the fact that they are guarding someone important.’

Christopher Beese, chief administration officer for Armorgroup, which recruits Gurkhas for guard duty and ex-British and US forces for close protection work, says: ‘We have a lot of people who want to work in Iraq. We are looking for men with the right background who are mature. People with a skill, a military record with active service and experience overseas. We want people who can make decisions on their feet.’ Many of those who do make it are veterans of similar work from Colombia to Algeria.

Although there are ‘rules of engagement’ for both the private security personnel and contractors with their own weapons, there is still a Wild West feel to Iraq. All weapons are licensed by the Coalition Provisional Authority and all shooting incidents must be reported, but everyone operates within a framework that is, at best, quasi-legal, and where life – on both sides – is cheap.

While the money can be fantastic, many quickly weary of the life. One of these is ‘Mark’ – not his real name – an amiable, intelligent and muscular British ex-soldier who has grown sick of of Baghdad. He has been held up at gunpoint and robbed. But it is not the danger that has worn him out – it is the lifestyle. The endless bad meals that seem the same; being holed up in the same fortified hotels with little to do except push weights; and the general level of hostility. When Mark left in March, he vowed not to return.

Anecdotal evidence suggests not only that many of those who went to Iraq are leaving, but also that companies and even government organisations – like Britain’s Foreign Office – are finding it harder to find staff of any kind prepared to go there, despite the incentives. And with each new murder or kidnapping, the demand for tickets on the Air Jordanian flight out of Baghdad gets stronger.

It is not only security consultants who have flocked to Iraq. Briton Gary Teeley, kidnapped in the southern town of Nasariya and then released by Italian troops, had travelled to work as a ‘laundry consultant’ with a company servicing Coalition troops. Other Britons have lucrative contracts servicing everything from the country’s new mobile phone network, engineering support to the oil industry and construction. But it is not just Britons and Americans.

A group of Japanese briefly opened a ‘Chinese’ restaurant opposite the Palestine Hotel last summer, until they were persuaded to move to within the ‘Green Zone’ – the Coalition Provisional Authority’s heavily guarded, vast compound – to feed its residents. At the British base at Basra ‘international airport’ a group of Indians opened a coffee house serving lattes, cappuccinos and machiatos for the British troops.

But these are small-scale ventures compared with those of other Iraq Klondikers. Take Andy Duke. On any given afternoon Duke, 49, can be found at one of the few bars in town, entertaining Iraqi professionals. A former stockbroker from Colorado, he came to Baghdad at the same time as Misic. Like him, he lived off his savings. Now he is a consultant for several large American contractors.

‘You would be insane not to realise that there are security issues here. But if you let security issues govern all your decisions, then you might as well make the decision to walk out of here. Walking out of here would invalidate all the effort I’ve put in so far. The thing that made me stay in Iraq is this: how often do you get to rebuild a rich country? I don’t have a family. I’m a seasoned executive. Having spent my career as a troubleshooter, this is the biggest game in town. This is like the Olympics for the stuff I do.’

Duke believes the security problem is good news for those prepared to tough it out. ‘The recent instability is good for anybody who is actually here. It is reducing the competition, because people are taking the Wall Street walk.’

Australian Douglas Wood Barry, 56, an engineer by training, spent 25 years working for Bechtel, the US construction giant, before starting his own small joint venture construction firm. Since coming to Iraq two months ago, it has won two contracts, the renovation of a building inside the Green Zone, and a military camp in Falluja. He has 200 employees working at the two sites.

‘I saw real potential to work, to build things, to make things happen in Iraq,’ he says. ‘I miss watching the grandchildren grow up and sharing with them the everyday things. I miss my view, jumping in my pool, BBQs in the backyard, all that crap. But [here] I wake up in the morning wanting to go to work, creating things, making things better. When you have construction in your blood you want to build things. I don’t feel afraid for my life here. There are incidents that are disturbing, but I’ve never been person ally threatened.’ Despite that, he admits it has affected his work – not least in Falluja, where intimidation by insurgents and the US military response has kept the site shut for a week.

‘I’ve heard the sounds of mortars dropping near by, rifle fire in the streets, but this is like occasional background music. The reality is that it’s not all that difficult. There are probably scarier places in downtown Washington DC.’