They are soldiers who salute a paying customer rather than a flag. They have been used in the most controversial of conflicts so nations can maintain deniability while furthering policy goals. Once disparagingly called mercenaries, these armed groups now refer to themselves as ?private military companies.? They increasingly fight alongside, instead of as a replacement for, conventional military forces.

Regardless of what soldiers-for-hire prefer to call themselves,John Pike of Washington-based Global Security.Org says customers want them because they have a specific skill. ?These are men? he says ?who, by their nature, are capable of inflicting violence that a normal human being could not inflict. In many cases, we?re hiring attack dogs.?

The 1990?s were littered with instances where private military companies used violence to accomplish goals set by their employers. A PMC called ?Executive Outcomes? was deeply involved in conflicts in Angola, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere in Africa. Another, Sandline, was hired by Papua New Guinea to crush rebels who had taken over valuable mining operations in Bougainville. In 1998, Sandline and its colorful leader, Colonel Tim Spicer, were brought in by Sierra Leone?s government after Britain declined direct involvement in that country?s internal troubles.

Pratap Chatterjee, with the watchdog group Corporate Watch in Oakland, California, says a common thread linking these PMC operations is loot ? the mineral wealth these nations have. He tells VOA ?Gold, oil, diamonds are really what pays for these private military companies in smaller countries where that?s the mainstay of the economy. Sometimes, although rarely, they?re awarded direct concessions.?

Since the 1990?s however, the image of PMC?s shooting up third world countries for cash or loot has been replaced by another ? contract forces that augment a nation?s regular military with seasoned professionals who bring invaluable skills to a troubled situation. The term ?conflict resolution? and its bloody connotations has been replaced by ?peace operations.?

The aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War has provided the ideal opportunity for this image make-over, with as many as 20-thousand PMC contractors performing a wide variety of duties. Corporate Watch estimates that these private companies will earn more than 50 billion dollars assisting Iraq?s reconstruction. Doug Brooks, of the industry group ?International Peace Operations Association? outlines their different functions. ?There are three categories. There are ?logistical service companies? ? ?non-lethal service companies? we call them,? adding ?Then you have the private military companies that do the training. And then you have the private security companies, which are doing the actual security.?

In Iraq, logistical companies are driving trucks and doing so-called ?behind the front lines? duties, freeing up conventional soldiers for peacekeeping. Iraqi forces are being trained, in large part, by these outside contractors, again so U.S. and allied troops can be used elsewhere. During the more than one year that the Coalition Provisional Authority ran Iraq, administrator Paul Bremer and other top officials were protected by Blackwater and other private security firms.

In May, the CPA awarded a 293-million dollar ?cost plus? contract to London-based Aegis Defense Systems to coordinate all private contractor security activity in Iraq. The contract raised eyebrows when it became known that Aegis was headed by the same Colonel Tim Spicer who gained infamy with Sandline. George Washington University?s Deborah Avant says the choice of Aegis was no mistake, and that its leader?s past was seen as an asset. She asserts ?Some people have suggested that this showed that the U-S was clueless about contracting. There is no reason for this company to have gotten the contract other than Tim Spicer?s reputation.?

The moves by private military companies into so-called conventional operations have been paralleled by efforts to create a set of international regulations on PMC activities. IPOA spokesman Doug Brooks asserts that his group?s member military companies actually want to have rules set down. He tells VOA ?From an IPOA perspective, we would like to see this formalized. Certainly, the companies in the industry would love to see some better regulations so that they have a ?box? to operate in. You know, what are they allowed to do ? what are they not allowed to do, and so on.?

Britain?s House of Commons examined a lengthy PMC regulatory proposal in 2002, but so far no action has been taken. The United Nations, which some feel is the best body for setting the boundaries for global PMC activities, has also not taken action.

In the wake of its bloody past, and because of scandals in the Balkans, Haiti, and most recently at Baghdad?s Abu-Ghraib prison, creating a framework of accountability and above-board transparency for private military companies remains both an imperative and a daunting task.