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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Private Security Guards in Iraq Operate With Little Supervision

December 04, 2005|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Private security contractors have been involved in scores of shootings in Iraq, but none have been prosecuted despite findings in at least one fatal case that the men had not followed proper procedures, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Times.

Instead, security contractors suspected of reckless behavior are sent home, sometimes with the knowledge of U.S. officials, raising questions about accountability and stirring fierce resentment among Iraqis.

Thousands of the heavily armed private guards are in Iraq, under contract with the U.S. government and private companies. The conduct of such security personnel has been one of the most controversial issues in the reconstruction of Iraq. Last week, a British newspaper publicized a so-called trophy video that appears to show private contractors in Iraq firing at civilian vehicles as an Elvis song plays in the background.

The contractors function in a legal gray area. Under an order issued by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority that administered Iraq until June 2004, contractors suspected of wrongdoing are to be prosecuted in their home countries. The contractors have immunity from Iraqi courts and have so far not faced American prosecution, giving little recourse to Iraqis seeking justice for wrongful shootings.

"What was my innocent son's crime?" asked Zahra Ridha, the mother of a 19-year-old shot and killed by security contractors in May. "Is this what we deserve?"

Industry officials say some contractors have voluntarily set up compensation programs, but there is no formal system in place, as there is for cases involving American troops.

The U.S. military has a commission that reviews damages claims and makes payments when troops are determined to have erred in opening fire on property or people. American troops suspected of shooting at Iraqis face trial in military tribunals. More than 20 U.S. service members have been accused of crimes leading to the deaths of Iraqis, and at least 10 have been convicted.

A Justice Department official, who asked not to be identified because he was not an authorized spokesman, said the lack of prosecutions of contractors reflected poor oversight by U.S. officials in Iraq, who were under no compulsion to report suspected criminal behavior.

"Any time you get a large group of people together in one place, bad things are going to happen," the official said.

A Times survey of nearly 200 "serious incident" reports filed by private security firms since November 2004 shows that 11% of the incidents involved contractors firing toward civilian vehicles believed to be a threat.

The reports do not indicate whether the shootings were deemed to be justified, and contain limited information about the fate of the vehicle occupants. The reports, filed voluntarily with the Pentagon, say that the contractors received no fire from the vehicles, but shot at them because they were believed to be potential suicide bombers.

About 20% of the reports involved contractors who said they were fired on by U.S. forces in apparent cases of mistaken identity. Contractors in Iraq frequently travel in unmarked vehicles and do not have reliable communications with military units.

Most of the remaining reports are harrowing accounts of insurgent attacks on contractors that involve roadside bombs, ambushes, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and machine-gun fire.

The reports, which were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Times, represent only a small portion of the serious incidents recorded by the Pentagon since tracking began in 2004.

The Defense Department has denied a Times request to provide the names of the private security contractors in the reports and has yet to release an untold number of additional reports. The Times has filed a federal lawsuit seeking the release of all such reports and security company identities.

The security firms provide armed guards to protect U.S. officials and private contractors working in Iraq.

Although most are paid with government funds, no single U.S. agency regulates them.

Last year, the Pentagon estimated that there were 60 such firms operating in Iraq with about 20,000 employees.

The firms have been awarded at least $766 million in contracts since 2003, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

At their best, security guards are highly trained former special forces soldiers whose professionalism has saved countless lives. Their presence alleviates the need for additional U.S. forces.

Industry officials defended their record in Iraq. Insurgents frequently strike by driving explosives-packed cars into convoys transporting officials. A security contractor has only seconds to decide whether an approaching vehicle is being driven by an insurgent or an innocent Iraqi, they said.

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