UK firm sued over US soldier’s death

· Erinys guards accused of causing death in Iraq
· Authorities close down UK contractors in Afghanistan

Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
The Guardian

A British private security firm hired to protect the oil installations of post-invasion Iraq is being sued for causing the death of an American soldier.The case against the Erinys security firm, which reportedly has close ties to the former Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, is believed to be the first brought against a private security contractor operating in Iraq by a member of the US military.

It comes at a time of rising unease about the actions of private security firms in Iraq after 17 Iraqi civilians were shot dead in Baghdad by Blackwater guards travelling with a convoy of US diplomats.

The suit against Erinys, filed last week in Houston, was brought by the father of Specialist Christopher Monroe, who was struck by an Erinys convoy on October 25 2005. He was on guard duty in southern Iraq when he was struck and killed by a speeding Erinys vehicle, the suit alleges.

“The family just didn’t have the answers that they were seeking,” said Tobias Cole, a lawyer for the family. “For example, why did their son die on a non-combat mission? There was no reason to have extreme driving, no reason to drive without headlights, no reason to drive at speed through a parked convoy.”

Monroe, 19, was the third generation of his family to serve in the US military and was an eager recruit. He enlisted before finishing secondary school at the age of 17. The lawsuit alleges the four vehicles in the Erinys convoy were driving at an estimated speed of up to 80mph on a dark road using only their parking lights. The Erinys vehicles were not under fire, and they were not carrying high-profile passengers.

Monroe’s right leg was sheared off by the force of the collision, and he was thrown 40ft into the air.

Erinys employees, who were driving in a four-vehicle convoy, had passed through two US checkpoints moments before Monroe was hit, and they had been warned that more US troops were ahead, the suit said.

But it accuses the Erinys team of ignoring the warnings, and driving so fast that they failed to see Monroe or the five-tonne truck he was guarding. “Although extreme driving manoeuvres may be appropriate for private security contractors at certain times, driving recklessly at a high rate of speed with no headlights through a parked US convoy after being specifically warned is not,” the law suit said.

At the time of Monroe’s death, Erinys had been providing security to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The company denies any wrongdoing and says it was cleared by a US military investigation. “It was a very tragic accident for which Erinys and its employees have been thoroughly exonerated,” a spokesman for the firm told the Guardian yesterday.

The Monroe family’s law suit comes at a time when the Bush administration is under growing pressure at home to rein in private security firms and the lucrative business of guarding US diplomats and troops. The Iraqi government last week revoked the legal immunity under which Blackwater and the other firms had operated.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the authorities stepped up their crackdown on private security contractors yesterday, raiding the premises of a British-based firm, Olympus, in Kabul. It was the eighth private security firm to be raided and closed in a month, but the first foreign firm.

Erinys was the subject of a great deal of attention in the summer of 2003 when the firm was awarded an $80m (£39m), 18-month contract to provide security for Iraq’s oil refineries and pipelines. The firm created a new entity called Erinys Iraq.

Erinys has also been caught up in controversy closer to home. Shortly before his murder, the former Russian security services agent, Alexander Litvinenko, visited the London offices of Erinys where traces of polonium 210 were found.

The first recruits of the 14,000-strong oil protection force raised by Erinys Iraq were members of the Iraqi Free Forces, the US-trained militia that was headed by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile who was America’s protege in the run-up to the invasion. Members of Mr Chalabi’s inner circle were among the founding partners of Erinys Iraq. Erinys now has about 1,000 employees in Iraq, the spokesman said. Most are UK nationals.