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Contractors in Iraq operating with few restraints

Relatives of four Blackwater USA contractors slain in Iraq in 2004 testified before a House committee in Washington in February. The families' lawsuit accused Blackwater of failing to provide the security guards with appropriate equipment. Relatives of four Blackwater USA contractors slain in Iraq in 2004 testified before a House committee in Washington in February. The families' lawsuit accused Blackwater of failing to provide the security guards with appropriate equipment. (Dennis Cook/Associated Press)

NEW YORK -- There are now nearly as many private contractors in Iraq as there are US soldiers -- and a large percentage of them are private security guards equipped with automatic weapons, body armor, helicopters, and bulletproof trucks.

They operate with little or no supervision, accountable only to the firms employing them. And as the country has plummeted toward anarchy and civil war, this private army has been accused of indiscriminately firing at American and Iraqi troops, and of shooting to death an unknown number of Iraqi citizens who got too close to their heavily armed convoys.

Not one has faced charges or prosecution.

There is great confusion among legal specialists and military officials about what laws, if any, apply to Americans in this force of at least 48,000.

They operate in a decidedly gray legal area. Unlike soldiers, they are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Under a special provision secured by American-occupying forces, they are exempt from prosecution by Iraqis for crimes committed there.

"I understand this is war," said Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, whose efforts for greater contractor accountability led to an amendment in next year's Pentagon spending bill. "But that's absolutely no excuse for letting this very large force of armed private employees, dare I say mercenaries, run around without any accountability to anyone."

The security firms insist their employees are governed by internal conduct rules and by use-of-force protocols established by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US occupation government that ruled Iraq for 14 months after the invasion.

But many soldiers on the ground -- who earn in a year what private guards can earn in one month -- say their private counterparts should answer to a higher authority, just as they do. More than 60 US soldiers in Iraq have been court-martialed on murder-related charges involving Iraqi citizens.

Some military analysts and government officials say the contractors could be tried under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which covers crimes committed abroad. But that law has not been applied to them.

Security firms earn more than $4 billion in government contracts, but the government doesn't know how many private soldiers it has hired, or where all of them are, according to the Government Accountability Office. And the companies are not required to report violent situations involving their employees.

Security guards constitute nearly 50 percent of private contractors in Iraq -- a number that has skyrocketed since the 2003 invasion, when Donald Rumsfeld, then defense secretary, said rebuilding Iraq was the top priority. But an unforeseen insurgency and hundreds of terrorist attacks have pushed the country into chaos. Security is now Iraq's greatest need.

The wartime numbers of private guards are unprecedented -- as are their duties, many of which have traditionally been done by soldiers. They protect US military operations and have guarded high-ranking officials including General David Petraeus, the US commander in Baghdad. They also protect visiting foreign officials and thousands of construction projects.

At times, they are better equipped than military units.

Their presence has also pushed the war's direction. The 2004 battle of Fallujah -- an unsuccessful military assault in which an estimated 27 US Marines were killed, along with an unknown number of civilians -- was retaliation for the killing, maiming, and burning of four Blackwater guards in that city by a mob of insurgents.

Blackwater has an estimated 1,000 employees in Iraq, and at least $800 million in government contracts. It is one of the most high-profile security firms in Iraq, with its fleet of "Little Bird" helicopters and armed door-gunners swarming Baghdad and beyond.

The secretive company, run by a former Navy SEAL, is based at a massive, swampland complex in North Carolina. Until the Sept. 11 attacks, it had few security contracts. Since then, Blackwater profits have soared. And it has become the focus of numerous contractor controversies in Iraq, including the May 30 shooting death of an Iraqi deemed to be driving too close to a Blackwater security detail.

Company spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the shooting was justified. "Based on incident reports and witness accounts, the Blackwater professional acted lawfully and appropriately," she wrote in an e-mail.