Working on the lawless streets of Baghdad, private security guards move within a legal no man's land.
By Stephanie Holmes
Private security guards have a bad reputation but is it deserved?
Fulfilling a difficult and dangerous role, they are often accused by Iraqis of acting recklessly, safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to pay for the consequences of their actions.
A US congressional investigation into private security firm Blackwater USA is reported to describe the company's use of force as "excessive" and "pre-emptive".
The report notes that Blackwater contractors frequently do not wait to be shot at before opening fire.
The investigation follows an incident on 16 September, when at least 11 Iraqi civilians were killed in a shooting in a busy Baghdad square.
The company says its guards, escorting a group of US officials, reacted "lawfully and appropriately" to a hostile attack.
But Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's angry condemnation of killing "in cold blood" has thrown up the unresolved issue of accountability for such private security firms.
Armed guards contracted by US and other government agencies were granted immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law under an agreement dating from 2003.
Different uniform, same job?
It was extended just days before the Coalition Provisional Authority - the now-defunct interim body set up by the US-led coalition in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein - was disbanded in June 2004.
For Yahia Said, an academic of Iraqi heritage based at the UK's London School of Economics, the questionable legal status of such private soldiers - neither military or civilian - lies at the heart of the hostility felt towards them by ordinary Iraqis.
"They are contractors with legal immunity, beyond the reach of Iraqi legislation, completely above the law," Mr Said, Director of the Middle East Revenue programme at the LSE, told the BBC news website.
As sub-contractors, rather than direct government employees, they sit uncomfortably between international law, US regulations and Iraqi legislation, although technically they are subject to the law of their "sending state".
Congress has pressed the Pentagon to draw up regulations that would allow private contractors to be prosecuted under either US legislation or US military law, but little progress has yet been made.
Most of them work extremely efficiently, do a fantastic job, are very courageous in the way they look after people, and earn the trust that most of their customers have in them
Sir Jeremy Greenstock
Former UK Special Representative to Iraq
With no clear formal safeguards, the private companies are self-regulating, which means that they set their own limits, says Mr Said.
"Beyond this legal vacuum everything depends on the firms' own personal values which you can't always count on. They should somehow be made accountable, otherwise it is up to them not to violate the law, to respect human rights."
But former UK Special Representative to Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who often travelled in armed convoys during the six and a half months he spent in the country, defends the private guards' special immunity.
"There is a legal basis for this immunity, it is something that has a precedent and it is probably necessary to attract and employ the right form of security guard."
The role of private security firms in building the future of the country - through securing individuals, supply lines and infrastructure - cannot be underestimated, Sir Jeremy says.
"They are absolutely essential to any foreign firm that wants to have its personnel working in Iraq. You cannot go around Iraq without some protection and even when there is protection there is considerable risk."
He defends the sober professionalism of many guards, often former members of elite military units.
"Most of them work extremely efficiently, do a fantastic job, are very courageous in the way they look after people, and earn the trust that most of their customers have in them," he said.
Mr Said does not believe that immunity is necessary, arguing that the contracts remain so lucrative that the risk of prosecution will not discourage people from taking a job which pays from $500 (£250) a day.
But he agrees that their image as aggressive gun-touting mercenaries does not always match up to the reality.
"They have a bad reputation because they are mercenaries. They look mean but in reality they are better trained, more professional," he said.
BLACKWATER USA FACTS
Founded in 1997 by a former US Navy Seal
Headquarters in North Carolina
One of at least 28 private security companies in Iraq
Employs 744 US citizens, 231 third-country nationals, and 12 Iraqis to protect US state department in Iraq
Provided protection for former CPA head Paul Bremer
Four employees killed by mob in Falluja in March 2004
"They are not 19-year-old conscripts and they don't use heavy weaponry - they don't drop 500lb bombs."
Highly trained guards, who specialise in personal protection rather than military roles, fill vital gaps in army personnel, says Sir Jeremy.
They act as what military experts describe as "force multipliers" with their expertise enabling the military to focus on its specialised operations.
But it is precisely this blurring of the lines between the government-employed soldier and the privately-contracted guard which sparks the suspicion towards mercenaries, says Mr Said.
"It violates one of the tenets that we have come to accept. We will accept only armed soldiers as representatives of armed states. Privately armed soldiers are considered an aberration," he said.
"It is usually agreed that the use of force is a monopoly domain of governments because there is a chain of accountability from democratically elected leaders down to soldiers, which is absent with private contractors."