WASHINGTON, DC—Pressed for additional troops to police the Iraqi general elections scheduled for January, the Pentagon announced Monday that it will dispatch 30,000 U.S. shopping-mall security guards to the troubled Sunni Triangle region.
"A force of security guards trained to protect retail stores across America will be deployed to the Persian Gulf region," said Maj. Peter Archibald, a spokesman for Central Command. "Once in Iraq, security teams will fortify ground forces and assist them in keeping the peace and quelling any horseplay."
According to Archibald, the Pentagon wanted to bolster forces in Iraq without further extending the tours of soldiers currently in the theater. The solution should offer the additional advantage, Archibald said, of potentially dispelling the public's rising concerns over a possible military draft.
"We found that mall security guards are as well-trained and ready to face danger as the coalition-trained military police," Archibald said. "They may not have the power of arrest, but real authority is only a walkie-talkie call away."
Hired by the Defense Department through a number of licensed, reputable firms, the security guards will work independent of the roughly 135,000 troops currently stationed in Iraq. The guards will receive an hourly wage from the U.S. government, and they will be eligible for health and dental benefits after six months.
A test deployment of 1,000 mall security guards to Najaf in September convinced skeptical coalition officials that private-sector security forces provide a palpable sense of order.
"Iraqi patrons of mall-guard-patrolled marketplaces—the Iraqi equivalent of our nation's food courts—reported that the guards' uniformed presence was unobtrusive or even reassuring," Archibald said. "While many Iraqis are intimidated by soldiers from the U.S., they were largely able to disregard the mall security forces."
Archibald said that casualty rates for the mall security guards were only slightly higher than those among Iraqi police forces.
Bobby Adcock, 27, of Bakersfield, CA, was rejected for military service in August 2002, due to poor eyesight and excessive weight. He was hired by A-Star Security shortly thereafter, and was surprised to find himself patrolling an Iraqi bazaar in a Ford Taurus two years later.
"The work is similar in a lot of ways," Adcock said, pausing mid-sentence to order a nearby Iraqi to pick up a candy wrapper and a blood-spattered keffiyeh. "I thought maybe I'd be dodging artillery fire and flushing insurgents out of hiding places, but mostly I stand around and keep my eyes peeled for trouble. Just the other day, we caught some vandals spray-painting 'Go home USA' on the side of a building. Then, there's the suspicious package sightings. Fortunately, a good number of those turn out to be false alarms."
"All in all, it's an okay assignment," Adcock said. "The food is strange, except for those lamb kebabs. Those aren't bad. The break room is just a shed out in back of a used-electronics store, but I don't want to complain. I'm getting a lot of overtime."
Dale London, 47, is employed by Five-Eagle Security, based in Ames, IA. A former Loews Cineplex security guard who spent three years as an airport metal-detector operator, London now patrols the streets of Najaf.
"I had to retrain my eye to spot the particular dangers over here in sand-land," London said. "Yesterday, this kid with a bulge down his shirtfront comes around the corner. When I ask him to undo his jacket, wouldn't you know, there's a grenade launcher. Well, I hustled his keister right behind the falafel stand and told him the next time I saw his face around here, I'd turn him over to the coalition. Then I called his mullah to come pick him up."
Added London: "I never figured out where he shoplifted the grenade launcher from, so I took it to our lost and found. If any Najaf shopkeepers out there are missing a grenade launcher, they should contact me, Dale London, at the Five-Eagle Security station. It's near the grocery where they sell that funny sesame candy."
While the security guards' power is limited by international law, they are authorized to alert coalition forces in the event of trouble. Last week, a Marine platoon was dispatched after Adcock noticed that a vehicle had been parked unattended in an abandoned lot for several hours.
"We inspected the car, but it contained no bomb or weapons," Marine Sgt. Michael Shahinian, 25, said. "Weird thing is, turns out the call came from this guy Bobby Adcock, who was two grades above me at Bakersfield High School. I guess he's a pop cop working here now. Holy shit. I wonder if he ever did pass that shop class we had together."
Rebecca Chatelain, a research associate at the Institute For Defense Analysis, expressed misgivings over the use of mall security guards in Iraq.
"The situation there is extremely volatile," Chatelain said. "The guards may provide a layer of security, but it's more psychological than actual. Any determined insurgent will soon discover how easy it is to overcome a lightly armed, out-of-shape mall cop. I'd hate to see a repeat of what happened in Somalia."
Chatelain was referring to a 1993 incident in which several dozen American prom chaperones were sent to Somalia along with U.N. peacekeeping troops. All were shot by factional guerrillas within hours of their arrival.