Lucrative pay lures cream of SA cops to Iraq

Members of the South African Police Services' elite task force are in the process of resigning for more profitable security work in Iraq.

With fewer than 100 members in South Africa, the task force's duties include securing the safety of top politicians, including President Thabo Mbeki, if they visit potentially dangerous areas.

They are viewed as the cream of the crop of the police and undergo rigorous training before they specialise in various fields, including sniper training.

Almost half of the task force members in Johannesburg and Cape Town and 10 of the 12 members in the Durban unit - including three new recruits who recently qualified - are considering the more profitable option.

Police spokesperson Sally de Beer said the head of the task force, Mike Fryer, and commander Andre Pruis were trying to dissuade the officers from leaving.

"We will try everything in our power to stop them," De Beer said.

"They are young men and have their lives ahead of them."

But the prospect of making a small fortune might be too seductive.

Although highly trained, the men are on the same salary scale as their counterparts in other police units, earning between R70 000 and R80 000 annually. They can make the same amount of money in a month and a half in Iraq. Police officers recruited by scouts are offered between $5 000 (about R35 000) and $8 000 to work in Iraq.

Former police officers have been recruiting task force members in Johannesburg and have set their sights on Durban's task force.

If the police officers go to Iraq, the police services would lose the more than R150 000 invested in each member's training.

Although much of the recruiting is done by word of mouth, several security agencies are recruiting on the Internet.

One local company has secured a contract to protect oil installations.

Another has contracts with several Iraqi ministries as well as the contract to distribute the new Iraqi currency. There are an estimated 1 500 South Africans in Iraq, many believed to be former policemen or soldiers.

According to a United Nations report, South Africa is among the top three suppliers of personnel, and more are flocking to the country, despite the obvious dangers.

Recently, former Koevoet member Francois Strydom was killed in an explosion outside the hotel where he and other South Africans were staying.

Former Vlakplaas police officer Deon Gouws was injured in the blast.

Henrie Boshoff, an Institute for Security Studies military analyst, said he was aware that several South Africans were in Iraq and that most were former members of the South African National Defence Force and the police.

What was alarming, he said, was that active members were resigning to go to Iraq.

He said South Africa was fertile ground for companies seeking recruits for the security industry.

"There are many former special forces members who still have links with the security industry," said Boshoff.

"But what is alarming is that members of specialised units are resigning. It will have a negative effect to lose that experience - it takes at least a year to train them.

"Locals going to Iraq are also risking contravening the Foreign Military Assistance Act."

This act prohibits South African citizens from taking part as combatants in armed conflict for private gain.

Security companies working outside the country are also required to register with the National Conventional Arms Control Committee.

Several policemen have used their leave to visit Iraq before making up their minds about going. "It is very tempting if you look at the money," a policeman said.

De Beer warned police officers that they could get into serious trouble if they did not have permission to work in Iraq. Disciplinary action could also be taken against them under the Military Act, she said.

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