There are now nearly as many private contractors in Iraq as there are U.S. soldiers -- and a large percentage of them are private security guards equipped with automatic weapons, helicopters and bullet-proof trucks.
They operate with little or no supervision, accountable only to the firms employing them. 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 experts 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.
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 U.S. occupation government that ruled Iraq for 14 months following the invasion.
Some military analysts and government officials say the contractors could be tried under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which covers crimes committed abroad. But so far, 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 incidents involving their employees.
One firm, Blackwater 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, in an e-mail to The Associated Press, said the shooting was justified. "Based on incident reports and witness accounts, the Blackwater professional acted lawfully and appropriately," she wrote.
Other alleged shootings involving private contractors include:
* An incident in which a supervisor for a Virginia-based security company said he was "going to kill somebody today" and then shot at Iraqi civilians for amusement, possibly killing one, according to two employees. The two were fired by the company, Triple Canopy, and responded with a wrongful termination lawsuit. On Aug. 1, a Fairfax County, Va., jury ruled that Triple Canopy did not wrongly fire the two men.
* Disgruntled employees of London-based Aegis Defence Services posted videos on the Internet in 2005 showing company guards firing automatic weapons at civilians from the back of a moving security vehicle. After initially denying involvement, Aegis issued a statement saying the shootings were legal and within rules-of-force protocols established by the now-defunct CPA. Those guidelines allow security guards to fire on vehicles that approach too close or too quickly. U.S. Army auditors, in their own investigation, agreed with Aegis.
* Sixteen American security guards were arrested and jailed by U.S. Marines in Fallujah in 2005 following a day of shooting incidents in which they allegedly fired on a Marine observation post, a combat patrol and civilians walking and driving in the city, about 40 miles west of Baghdad. The guards, employed by Zapata Engineering of North Carolina, were imprisoned for three days. They were released and returned to the United States, where they claimed the Marines humiliated and taunted them in prison, calling them "mercenaries" and intimidating them with dogs. The private guards denied taking part in the shootings.