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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

“I still do not know how we managed to escape serious harm – or even death – that day.” Read an excerpt from Blood Money

Blood MoneyJohan Raath and a security team were escorting American engineers to a power plant south of Baghdad when they were ambushed. He had first arrived in Iraq only two weeks before. This was a small taste of what was to come over the next 13 years he worked there as a private military contractor (PMC).

His mission? Not to wage war but to protect lives. Raath acted as a bodyguard for VIPs and, more often, engineers who were involved in construction projects to rebuild the country after the 2003 war. His physical and mental endurance was tested to the limit in his efforts to safeguard construction sites that were regularly subjected to mortar and suicide attacks. Key to his survival was his training as a Special Forces operator, or Recce.

Working in places called the Triangle of Death and driving on the ‘Hell Run’, Raath had numerous hair-raising experiences. As a trained combat medic he also helped to save people’s lives after two suicide bomb attacks on sites he then worked at:

Two weeks after I arrived in Iraq, I was due to lead a team on a reconnaissance mission to the Musayyib Power Plant, about 120 km south-west of Bagdad. Our mission was to set up a base to receive and secure the first engineers and other workers from Southeast Texas Industries Inc., the engineering firm building the plant on a contract from the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity. We were a six-man configuration – three local nationals and three expatriate security contractors.

The route there and the area that we were to reconnoitre were in the so-called Triangle of Death (not to be confused with the Sunni Death Triangle, which is north-west of the city). The Triangle of Death got its name from the heavy combat activity and sectarian violence in the area between 2003 and 2007.

Our team members were all armed with assault rifles – we had five AK-47s and one M4 between us. We all also carried 9-mm pistols. When we set off that day, we weren’t initially wearing our body armour, as the idea was to blend in, low-profile, with the locals. But, after a while, I got a bad feeling about the area and asked the team to put on their vests. (Later, wearing body armour would become standard operating procedure and it was mandatory for all team members to wear body armour vests with ballistic plates in the front and back carrier pouches.)

We were travelling in two unarmoured (known as soft-skin) vehicles. Two of the Iraqis were in the front in a Pajero SUV and the rest of us followed in a BMW 740. The customary procedure was that the local guys would drive in front, so they could speak in Arabic to the Iraqi security forces, who manned most of the checkpoints. At many of the major checkpoints, the US forces had a greater presence, in which case the vehicle with the expat contractors would approach the checkpoint first to liaise in English and to present our US Department of Defense cards (commonly called DoD cards) or Common Access Cards. The DoD or CaC card proved that you were security vetted and cleared to work on US government contracts. As a private military contractor, you couldn’t move anywhere in Iraq without one.

We headed south on National Route 6 (known in Coalition Force jargon as ‘route Bismarck’). At around 10:30, shortly after we had turned onto a secondary road, we approached a checkpoint where the men in our lead vehicle showed their paperwork to the security forces and we followed with our DoD cards.

Not long afterwards, I spotted an old black Opel that was occupied by a group of young men. The strange thing was that they were trying to overtake us on the right – Iraqis drive on the right-hand side of the road. They then pulled off the shoulder of the tarmac road and onto the dirt.

I thought it odd but just wrote it off to bad driving, which I’d heard was typical of young Iraqi men. By then we were driving at about 140 km/h, a standard practice for private security teams in those days – the idea being to drive faster than the normal traffic to prevent too many vehicles from passing your convoy and to thwart rolling ambushes from the rear. But despite our speed, the Opel eventually managed to pass us on the outside, kicking up a massive ball of dust in the desert. Seconds later, the vehicle started swerving left aggressively and was back onto the asphalt road, pushing in front of us. They were clearly trying to split up our convoy.

As they overtook, the Opel driver glanced at me fleetingly and I can still vividly recall the look in his eyes. He was just a few metres away when they passed us. His pupils were dilated and he had an intense look of hatred and anger in his eyes. For a moment, I thought he might be under the influence of narcotics, but later I realised I was staring into the eyes of a mujahideen fighter who was drunk not on any substances, just emotions of hate welling up from his religious and sociopolitical convictions.

The next moment, I saw two men lean out of the front right and rear left windows armed with AK-47s. They opened fire on our lead vehicle. Bullets smashed the rear windscreen of the Pajero.

‘Contact front!’ I yelled immediately.

One of our team members in the back of the BMW, Ali Tehrani, wasted no time. Positioning himself at the back window, he opened fire on the Opel with his M4. The attacking vehicle was in the line of his two o’clock. The attackers immediately turned their attention to us and fired back at our vehicle before they slowed down and veered off the road.

I remember the cracking sound of the AK-47 bullets as they tore through our windscreen. A friend’s Garmin GPS and my digital camera were on the dashboard – the bullets pierced both. A piece of a bullet struck my bulletproof vest in the chest area, and another piece broke off and lodged in my left forearm (which is still there to this day). That’s how close it was.

In the midst of all this, our Kurdish driver drew his pistol and started firing back at the attackers through the windscreen, now destroyed by bullets, while at the same time trying to control the speeding vehicle with his left hand. We were doing 160 km/h, taking incoming fire and some of us were trying to return fire – it felt like I was in a Hollywood action movie, but one with a potentially lethal real-life outcome.

Our driver got so carried away with firing his pistol that at one point I had to block his right arm when he pushed the gun in front of my face in an attempt to fire at the attackers sideways. I leaned over and grabbed the steering wheel of the BMW, which had swerved dangerously across the road and in the process I dislocated my left shoulder. At the time the adrenalin numbed the pain. (I had to get reconstructive surgery for this a couple of years later.)

I remember very clearly seeing how the attacker shooting at us from the rear window slung his AK-47 over his shoulder, pulled a pistol from his belt and started spraying lead our way again. In hindsight, this showed a level of training and proficiency because it is a tactical drill to sling your assault rifle when you are out of ammunition or have a jam, and to continue shooting with your handgun.

By this time the Opel had disappeared from sight – presumably Ali’s return fire had hit their vehicle, but then we heard shots being fired from our rear as another car with shooters pulled in behind. Our rear window shattered. Brian Smith, one of the expat team members and our project medic, was bleeding from his forehead but, thankfully, he was not seriously injured. He and Ali even managed to fire a couple of rounds at the second vehicle.

By now, our speeding convoy was fast approaching another checkpoint and the attackers disappeared into the desert on secondary roads. When we arrived at the checkpoint, we reported the ambush and realised that the driver of the front vehicle had been shot through both arms, close to the elbows. Brian stopped the bleeding. Fortunately, the bullets had not hit any bones or arteries, which meant the driver had managed to keep control of the Pajero.

After swapping drivers and trying to make comms with our people back at the hotel, we drove like hell for the rest of the way. We were soon at our destination at the Musayyib Power Plant. The US forces there had a forward operating base with a small medical bay, where we got help for the injured driver. Brian and I weren’t seriously injured, it turned out; the bleeding was caused by some grazes from flying glass and debris. Brian organised a medevac helicopter and our driver was airlifted to Baghdad for medical treatment . . .

I still do not know how we managed to escape serious harm – or even death – that day. After less than two weeks in Iraq I had had my first eyewitness experience of what it was going to be like. It was an eye-opener, a real baptism of ‘fire’. Welcome to the Sandbox, I thought to myself.

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