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Shootings put security contractors under scrutiny in Iraq

Foreign workers firing on civilians, US officials say

ERBIL, Iraq -- The pop of a single rifle shot broke the relative calm of Ali Ismael's morning commute here in one of Iraq's safest cities.

Ismael, his older brother Bayez, and their driver had just pulled into traffic behind a convoy of four Chevrolet Suburbans, which police think belonged to an American security contractor stationed nearby. The backdoor of the last vehicle swung open, the brothers said in interviews, and a man wearing sunglasses and a tan flak jacket leaned out and leveled his rifle.

''I thought he was just trying to scare us, like they usually do, to keep us back. But then he fired," said Ismael, 20. His scalp is marked by a bald patch and a 4-inch purple scar from a bullet that grazed his head and left him bleeding in the back seat of his Toyota Land Cruiser.

''Everything is cloudy after that," he said.

A US investigation of the July 14 shooting concluded that no American contractors were responsible, a finding disputed by the Ismaels, other witnesses, local politicians, and the city's top security official, who termed it a coverup. No one has yet been held responsible.

Recent shootings of Iraqi civilians, allegedly involving the legion of US, British, and other foreign security contractors operating in the country, are drawing increasing concern from Iraqi officials and US commanders who say they undermine relations between foreign military forces and Iraqi civilians.

Private security companies pervade Iraq's dusty highways, their distinctive sport-utility vehicles packed with men waving rifles to clear traffic in their path. Theirs are among the most dangerous jobs in the country: escorting convoys, guarding dignitaries, and protecting infrastructure from insurgent attacks. But their activities have drawn scrutiny here and in Washington after allegations of indiscriminate shootings and other recklessness have given rise to charges of inadequate oversight.

''These guys run loose in this country and do stupid stuff. There's no authority over them, so you can't come down on them hard when they escalate force," said Brigadier General Karl Horst, deputy commander of the Third Infantry Division, which is responsible for security in and around Baghdad. ''They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath. It happens all over the place."

No tally of such activity has been made public, and Aegis, a British security company that helps manage contractors in Baghdad and maintains an operations center in the capital's fortified Green Zone, declined to answer questions. In the rare instances when police reports are filed, the US military is often blamed for the actions of private companies, according to Adnan Asadi, the deputy interior minister responsible for overseeing security companies.

The shootings became so frequent in Baghdad this summer that Horst started keeping his own count. Between May and July, he said, he tracked at least a dozen shootings of civilians by contractors, in which six Iraqis were killed and three wounded. The bloodiest case occurred May 12 in the neighborhood of New Baghdad. A contractor opened fire on an approaching car, which then veered into a crowd. Two days after the shooting, American soldiers patrolling the same block were attacked with a roadside bomb.

On May 14, in another part of the city, private security guards working for the US Embassy shot and killed at least one Iraqi civilian while transporting diplomats from the Green Zone, according to an embassy official who spoke on condition that he not be named. Two security contractors were dismissed from their jobs over the shooting.

Employees of private security firms are immune from prosecution in Iraq, under an order adopted into law last year by Iraq's interim government. The most severe punishment that can be applied to them is revocation of their license and dismissal from their job, US officials said. Their heavy presence stems in large part from the Pentagon's attempts to keep troop numbers down by privatizing jobs that would once have been performed by American forces.

There are at least 36 foreign security companies -- most from the United States and Britain -- and 16 Iraqi firms registered to operate here, according to the Interior Ministry, and as many as 50 more are believed to have set up shop illegally. Their total workforce is estimated at 25,000; many are military veterans, though levels of experience vary. As of December, contracts to provide security for US government agencies and reconstruction firms in Iraq had surpassed $766 million, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Johann R. Jones, director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, a trade organization representing such companies, known as PSCs, disputed Horst's characterization of their performance in an e-mail response.

''Whilst the behavior of a few PSCs is unhelpful, we have to also keep in mind that 'bad apples' are present in all organizations, including the MNF-I," wrote Jones, using the acronym for Multinational Forces-Iraq, the US-led military coalition here.

Security and other contractors working in Iraq have been frequent victims of violence. According to a Defense Department report to Congress last month, 166 contractors were killed and 1,005 wounded between May 1, 2003, and Oct. 28, 2004. The most publicized attack incident came on occurred March 31, 2004, when four employees of Blackwater Security Consulting, a North Carolina-based company, were killed and their bodies dragged through the volatile western city of Fallujah.

The US Embassy official said that he was ''extremely concerned" about shootings involving private security companies but that the vast majority of security contractors were highly professional. Of 122 shootings by contractors protecting embassy officials since July 2004, only three have resulted in disciplinary actions, according to US officials who monitor private security companies.

''Look, we're in a war zone," the official said. ''They are high targets. The insurgents know when they see SUVs rolling down the street. There are people trying to kill them all the time, and sometimes they have to respond."

Horst declined to provide the name of the contractors whose employees were involved in the 12 shootings he documented in the Baghdad area. But he left no doubt that he believed the May 12 shooting, in which three people were killed, led directly to the attack on his soldiers. ''Do you think that's an insurgent action? Hell, no," Horst said. ''That's someone paying us back because their people got killed. And we had absolutely nothing to do with it."

Asadi said Iraqi civilians nevertheless think private security guards are American soldiers. ''They have the same bodies, the same looks," he said. ''The only difference is the Humvees," vehicles used by the military but not by private firms.

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