David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Staff charged with protecting NZ ambassador 'walk off the job'

Kiwi troops training Iraqi soldiers at Taji Military Camp. Photo / Mike Scott
Kiwi troops training Iraqi soldiers at Taji Military Camp. Photo / Mike Scott

Security staff charged with protecting New Zealand's ambassador to Iraq are said to have walked off the job after a pay dispute and claims cost-cutting has put private military contractors doing the work at higher risk.

The private security staff are paid by the Australian Government to protect Australia's embassy, which is shared with New Zealand and base to ambassador James Munro.

The Australian reported this week that up to 40 protection specialists of the 67 who had guarded the embassy were to be flown out of Iraq as a result of the dispute.

It came as the company hired to provide security began a new contract at a substantially lower rate than it had previously received for the same task. Unity Resources Group will be paid $51 million to provide protection for the embassy for the next five years after picking up $101 million for the work for the four previous years.

A Herald source familiar with private military contracting work in Iraq said URG staff in Afghanistan had their pay cut a few months ago from US$600 a day to US$340 a day ($876 to $496) and the same was believed to be happening in Iraq.

"If the New Zealand Government is using the Australian embassy they will be paying a portion of security staff," he said. He said companies involved in the provision of private security staff had recently faced tough questions about how much the Western client countries were being charged. Someone paid US$600-a-day could expect to be charged back to the client at US$1600-a-day.

The loss of the experienced staff had raised concerns over the quality of those being brought in as replacements, he said.

The Weekend Australian reported two senior URG staff had told Australia's ambassador Charles Langman the company wasn't meeting the terms of the new contract.

The URG staff warned the company was unable to meet the requirement of filling three teams of 10 security specialists. A Weekend Australian source said the teams were at half strength.

New recruits were being flown in to meet the shortfall, but had apparently yet to be security cleared for the role. It raised questions as to whether they would be allowed weapons before the security clearance had been completed, and had prompted concern among existing staff over their competence.

Green Party MP Dave Clendon said New Zealand's presence was important as Iraq's future would be built on strong diplomacy not military action. He said it was concerning there were questions over the protection for the ambassador and safety of the mission.

"Our Government should seek assurances that all is well."

A spokeswoman for Duty Minister Chris Finlayson confirmed security for New Zealand's embassy was provided by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

"We have full confidence that DFAT has put in place the necessary security arrangements to safeguard the embassy."

She said the Government had been "kept updated on the rollover of the Australian Embassy's security contract" and was confident it would not change security for Mr Munro, the only staff member at the embassy.

Mr Munro, a former military officer with diplomatic experience in the Middle East, was appointed ambassador to Iraq in mid-2015.

Although Unity Resources Groups prefers hiring former Australian military personnel, it has targeted New Zealanders with experience in the armed forces.

- NZ Herald

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