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A contract to kill ... how big business is baying for blood

You can buy a war for half a billion dollars. But get in quick. That's at current market prices.

Costs may rise following last Saturday's New York Times story revealing that the United Arab Emirates has paid $529m to a company set up by Blackwater boss Eric Prince to recruit and train a mercenary army to undertake 'special missions' against the oil state's enemies, defend oil pipelines, crush internal opposition and so forth.

Emirate dictator Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan has also agreed to pay more than $100m a year to meet running costs and supply weapons and equipment - including rifles, mortars and armoured vehicles.

A training camp, complete with living accommodation, mess halls, firing ranges and a motor pool, has been built behind thick concrete walls topped with tangles of barbed wire in the desert. More than 500 of a projected 800 troops are in position, many recruited from Central and South America and paid $150 a day.

Their trainers, mostly veterans of US, British and German special forces and the French Foreign Legion, earn up to $200,000 a year.

If the initial project proves a success, the deal promises that the Emirates will provide billions to Blackwater to build an entire brigade thousands strong. However, this depends on the current battalion carrying out a 'real world mission' to the satisfaction of Emirate officials.

It is here that the project may run into trouble. Former recruits reveal that the company has fallen short of its target of 800 men in operational readiness by March 31 this year. At the moment, many of the 580 housed in the training camp are far from battle-prepared.

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As well, although there is good reason to believe that elements of the Obama administration gave the plan nod-and-wink approval, the exposure by Times's journalists may spark political controversy in Congress, which would please al-Nahyan and other Gulf rulers not at all.

At the same time, the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater personnel on a Sunday afternoon in Baghdad in 2007 has returned to haunt the company.

The case against four operatives was reopened by a Federal Appeals Court in April. Already taking some heat, Mr Prince may soon be feeling even more uncomfortable.

Then again, his companies and the extra-judicial services they offer, can count on the support of prominent and powerful interests. The attractions of sending, or sanctioning, armed forces not directly attached to government to fight unpopular wars are obvious.

In the book Blackwater: the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, published in 2008, American writer Jeremy Scahill described how the arms-length nature of Blackwater's operations, particularly in Iraq, had set senior US policy-makers thinking on the benefits of the US itself privatising its wars.

In January 2006, Prince addressed a conference in Washington of US military chiefs, sponsored by the biggest arms companies in the US - Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

The others on the panel were the commanders of Marine Corps special operations, the US navy special warfare group and the seventh special forces group.

"Why am I here?" Prince asked rhetorically. "Why a private organisation?"

He went on to explain that the case for privatisation which had applied to, for example, the postal service could just as validly be applied to fighting wars.

Earlier in 2006, Thomas Pogue, a former navy Seal recruited by Blackwater as a senior manager, made the point that private soldiers killed in conflict are not counted among the official dead - a distinct advantage, he suggested, for any US government embroiled in an unpopular war.

"If 10 contractors die, it's not the same as if 10 soldiers died... That has a completely different connotation for the American public."

In the same year, the Pentagon officially recognised private contractors as part of America's 'Total Force'.

Pursuing the implications at a Congressional hearing, Representative Dennis Kucinich asked Shay Assad, director of defence procurement at the Pentagon: "If someone connected with a private contracting company was involved in the murder of a civilian, would the department be ready to recommend their prosecution?"

"Sir, I'm just not qualified to answer that question". "Wow," exclaimed Kucinich. "These private contractors can get away with murder?" That appears still to be the position.

In light of which, anyone who has invested in Blackwater shouldn't panic after all if the share price drops in the wake of the New York Times's revelations.

Global market conditions haven't changed.

There's billions still to be made from bloodshed.