Is the Iraq Occupation Enabling Prostitution?

Military prostitution has long been seen around U.S. bases in the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and other countries. But since the U.S. has begun to deploy forces to many Muslim countries, it cannot be as open about enablingprostitution for its personnel. U.S. military deployments in the Gulf War, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War have reinvigorated prostitution and the trafficking of women in the Middle East.

Another major change has been the reliance of the U.S. military on private contractors, who have now surpassed the number of soldiers in Iraq. Public attention has begun to focus on the role of these contractors in U.S. war zones. Less attention has been paid to how private contractors are changing the nature of military prostitution. In the best known example, DynCorp employees were caught trafficking women in Bosnia, and some indications suggest that similar acts may be taking place in Iraq.

I am researching whether civilian contractors are enabling military sexual exploitation in Iraq, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Muslim countries. My research is investigating new patterns of sexual exploitation of women by the U.S. for military purposes, and how institutionalized prostitution has changed as U.S. forces have been stationed in Muslim countries. I am especially interested in the possible role of civilian contractors in promoting prostitution of local women, or in importing foreign women into U.S. war zones under the guise of employment as cooks, maids or office workers.

I have come to this research as a feminist activist who has long worked on issues of women and militarism, influenced by women such as Cynthia Enloe, Katherine Moon, and Saralee Hamilton. I have organized against the sexual exploitation of Filipinas near U.S. military bases. More recently, I have worked on the related issues of sexual harassment and assault of women GIs within the U.S. military. I have also been actively opposed to the U.S. attacks on Iraq since the Gulf War.

During the brief Gulf War, the U.S. military prevented prostitution for its troops in Saudi Arabia, to avoid a backlash from its hosts. But on their return home, the troop ships stopped in Thailand for "R & R." After the Gulf War, harsh economic sanctions forced many desperate Iraqi women into prostitution. The sex trade grew to such an extent that in 1999 Saddam ordered his paramilitary forces to crack down on it in Baghdad, resulting in the executions of many women.

The U.S. invasion of March 2003 brought prostitution back to Iraq within a matter of weeks. The Iraq War has now lasted eight times longer than the Gulf War deployments, and is marked by a huge reliance on private security contractors. A U.S. ban on human trafficking, signed by President Bush in January 2006, has not been applied to these contractors.

The rebirth of prostitution has generated fear that permeates all of Iraqi society. Families keep their girls inside, not only to keep them from being assaulted or killed, but to prevent them from being kidnapped by organized prostitution rings. Gangs are also forcing some families to sell their children into sex slavery. The war has created an enormous number of homeless girls and boys who are most vulnerable to the sex trade. It has also created thousands of refugee women who try to escape danger but end up (out of economic desperation) being prostituted in Jordan, Syria, Yemen or the UAE. Our occupation not only attacks women on the outside, but attacks them on the inside, until there is nothing left to destroy.

If foreign women are imported into Iraq for prostitution, they would almost certainly follow the already established channels of illegal labor trafficking, as documented in the Chicago Tribune series "Pipeline to Peril." For example, independent journalist David Phinney has documented how a Kuwaiti contract company that imported workers to build the new U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad's Green Zone also smuggled women into the construction site.

Within the Green Zone, a few brothels have been opened (disguised as a women's shelter, hairdresser, or Chinese restaurant) but are usually closed by authorities after reports about their existence reach the media. The U.S. military claims that it officially forbids its troops to be involved in prostitution. But private contractors brag on sex websites that they have sometimes been able to find Iraqi or foreign women in Baghdad or around U.S. military bases. These highly paid security contractors have much disposable income, and are not held accountable to anyone but their companies.

One contractor employee living in the Green Zone reported in February 2007 that "it took me 4 months to get my connections. We have a PSD [Personal Security Detail] contact who brings us these Iraqi cuties." Western contractors' e-mails also suggest that some Chinese, Filipina, Iranian and Eastern European women may also be prostituted to Americans and other Westerners within Iraq. (Other reports indicate that Chinese women might also be prostituted in Afghanistan, Qatar, and other Muslim countries where it may be difficult for rings to find local women.)

On leave from Iraq in 2005, Army Reservist Patrick Lackatt said that "For one dollar you can get a prostitute for one hour." But as the war has escalated in Baghdad and the other Arab regions of Iraq, it has become too dangerous for Westerners to move around outside of the military bases and the Green Zone. Contractors are now advising each other to do their "R & R" in the safer northern Kurdish region, or in the bars and hotels of Dubai, the UAE emirate that has become the most open center of prostitution in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, any prostitution rings in Iraq have to go deeper underground to hide from Iraqi militias.

As observed by Sarah Mendelson in her 2005 Balkans report Barracks and Brothels, many U.S. government protocols and programs have been implemented to slow human trafficking, but without enforcement they end up merely as public relations exercises. Military officials often turn a blind eye to the exploitation of women by military and contract personnel, because they want to boost their men's "morale." The most effective way for the military to prevent a public backlash is to make sure that the embarrassing information is not revealed. It is not necessary to cover up information if it does not come out in the first place.

It has been difficult for me (and other researchers and journalists) to get to the bottom of this crisis. In his book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran observed, "There were prostitutes in Baghdad, but you couldn't drive into a town to get laid like in Saigon." The question of who is behind the trafficking of people is as hard to crack as the trafficking of drugs (if not more so). It is difficult enough to track the widespread illegal trafficking of workers to Iraq. But the trafficking of Iraqi or foreign women for prostitution is even better concealed. The prostitution rings keep their tracks well hidden, and it is not in the interest of the military or its private contractors to reveal any information that may damage the war effort.

The fact that information is difficult to find, however, is a reason to intensify the search, and to make military prostitution a major issues of the women's and antiwar movements. It is our tax dollars that fuel the war in Iraq, and if any women are exploited as a result of the occupation, we owe it to them to take responsibility for these crimes.

I am currently writing a larger report on my findings, and am seeking any input from researchers and journalists, military veterans, private contract employees, exiles and refugees, or former prostituted women who may shed light on military prostitution in the Middle East, and the role of the military and its private contractors.

My ultimate purpose is doing this research is not only to help expose these crimes against women, but to help build a movement to stop them. Missing from the discussions about Iraqi women's rights is how the U.S. occupation is creating new oppressions that destroy women's self-worth. It is our responsibility as Americans to stop our military's abuses of women, by ending the occupation.

Debra McNutt is a feminist and antiwar activist and researcher living in Olympia, Washington. She can be contacted at

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