Last Sunday during a shoot-out in Baghdad, American security contractors from the Blackwater company, who were protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy, killed several Iraqi civilians. Blackwater says its guards were firing at insurgents, but witnesses say at least some of the dead civilians were innocent bystanders. The incident is under investigation, but it has renewed the controversy over the role of private security forces in Iraq, and raised questions about who controls them and how they can be held responsible for their actions. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
According to experts, there are about 20,000 private security contractors in Iraq, including several thousand Iraqis. They handle such duties as escorting convoys and guarding bases and warehouses. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.
"We believe there are certain functions which can be managed by private security contractors, freeing up our forces to take on more of a combat role," he said.
But some experts, like former defense department official Michele Flournoy, believe that is not a good thing.
"We should end the practice of relying on contractors for security functions," she said. "I think the risks outweigh the benefits."
Flournoy, who is co-founder of a new defense thinktank in Washington called the Center for a New American Security, says there are too many ambiguities about who controls the private paramilitary groups, and how they can be held accountable for their actions.
"I think we need to move towards a practice of using U.S. government personnel for those functions, either diplomatic security or military forces, so that those legal issues, those rules of engagement and the accountability is absolutely crystal clear," she added.
But other experts note that today's American military is not large enough to perform all the functions needed in a long-term conflict like Iraq. In fact, in addition to the security contractors working for the military and the State Department, there are more than 150,000 other contractors in Iraq doing things like cooking for the troops, cleaning and transporting supplies.
The Director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, Lawrence Peter, says the security contractors provide a vital function, and take great personal risks to support U.S. military and diplomatic missions.
"Regrettably, we've seen far too many security contractors lose their lives here [in Iraq]," he said. "We've seen far too many Iraqi civilians lose their lives here. It's easy for people who are not in Iraq to point at this or that and say this or that is wrong. I know that the people we have working here are doing very good work under very difficult circumstances. And, when you walk in their shoes you can have a better appreciation for it."
Peter, a retired U.S. Navy officer, says security contractors are required to follow a gradual escalation of force in any incident. But David Isenberg of the British American Security Information Council says they do not always follow those rules.
"There is at least some history of foreign security contractors in general, and Blackwater in particular, although it's not the only one, where they used force and shot people and killed people, in some cases, where it didn't seem to be warranted," he noted.
That is where the legal ambiguity comes in. Under an Iraqi law created by the Coalition Provisional Authority in the first months after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, security contractors are immune from prosecution in Iraqi, unless the U.S. government makes a specific exception. But Pentagon Press Secretary Goeff Morrell says that doesn't mean the contractors are beyond the reach of any law.
"These contractors have immunity from Iraqi law," he noted. "That's not to say they have immunity from U.S. law. If they do something wrong, they can be referred to the Department of Justice, and if they do something wrong they can even be referred for military justice."
And Morrell says the contractors must be held to the terms of their contracts, including limiting their use of deadly force, or they could do more harm than good to the U.S. effort in Iraq.
"If indeed contractors are behaving in a rogue, uncivil, heavy-handed way, that is not helpful towards our overall goal that our men and women in uniform are risking their lives for every day," he added.
David Isenberg of the British American Security Information Council acknowledges that in spite of some problems with security contractors in Iraq, they perform important functions. For example, he says reconstruction efforts would virtually stop if the contractors were not available to secure the sites.
"Security contractors are a tool, just like a rifle, a plane or a tank," he noted. "It's a tool to get a job done. You can use a tool two different ways. You can use it badly or you can use it well. Security contractors have been used both ways."
The contractors from Blackwater are particularly important in escorting U.S. diplomats around Baghdad, a practice which resumed Friday on a limited basis after the Iraqi government agreed to ease a ban on the company.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi investigation into the incident on September 16th is continuing. Blackwater says its employees acted "lawfully and appropriately" when faced with a threat to their convoy. An Iraqi official suggested Friday that the situation could be defused if new rules are adopted for security contractors and the company pays compensation to the families of the civilians killed in the incident.