Security contractors "don't want to shoot innocent people," said Lawrence Peters, the former director of the Private Security Company Assn. of Iraq, an industry group. "But it's a war zone, and mistakes do happen."
At their worst, critics say, the contractors are expensive, reckless mercenaries who complicate the U.S. mission in Iraq. A team of private contractors to protect a single U.S. official can cost upward of $5,000 a day. Security firms operating in Iraq have been cited for fraud and have clashed with U.S. forces.
"The overwhelming number of these [security guards] were highly professional and disciplined," said one U.S. official who worked in Iraq. "But if only 1% of them are bad, you're going to have some nasty characters running around who can do harm."
More than 400 contractors, many of them security guards, have been killed in Iraq, according to the most recent statistics available from the Labor Department.
At the same time, contractors have killed an unknown number of Iraqis in battles with insurgents, road collisions and accidental shootings, according to the records and interviews.
The private guards' sometimes aggressive behavior has created a wellspring of anger at the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Countless Iraqis have had to endure the humiliation of being forced to stop or pull off the road as a convoy of unmarked SUVs races past, filled with men waving guns and making threatening gestures.
"This is not a particularly effective way to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis," said Joshua Schwartz, co-director of George Washington University's government procurement program. "The contractors are making the mission of the U.S. military in Iraq more difficult."
An incident in May is a case in point.
Robert J. Callahan, wrapping up his tour as spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, was returning to his offices in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone when his convoy turned onto a broad thoroughfare running through Baghdad's Masbah neighborhood, said U.S. officials and Iraqi witnesses interviewed by The Times.
At the same moment, Mohammed Nouri Hattab, 32, was headed north on the road in his Opel. He was moonlighting as a taxi driver, transporting two passengers he had picked up moments earlier.
Hattab looked up and saw a five-car convoy speed out of a side street in front of him.
He was slowing to a stop about 50 feet from the convoy when he heard a burst of gunfire ring out, he said.
Bullets shot through the hood of his Opel, Hattab said, cut into his shoulder and pierced the chest of Yas Ali Mohammed Yassiri, who was in the back seat, killing him. The second passenger escaped without serious injury. The convoy roared on, leaving chaos in its wake.
"There was no warning. It was a sudden attack," said Hattab, a slight man who can no longer freely move his right arm.
Hattab said it was the third time since the U.S. invasion in 2003 that he had been fired on by Americans. On the first two occasions, U.S. troops who had mistakenly fired at him later apologized, he said.
This time, he said, he has drifted in an endless legal fight for compensation, bouncing between Iraqi courts and U.S. officials. Hattab, an Oil Ministry employee now on disability leave, has seen his pay cut in half to $51 a month.
"We thought [the Americans] would bring freedom. They got rid of Saddam," Hattab said. "Now it's going on three years and what? Where is this freedom?"
The family of his passenger, Yassiri, has fared no better. The 19-year-old newlywed, a Shiite from an impoverished neighborhood in Najaf, was on a trip to Baghdad.
Sitting in their two-room home on a dusty, unpaved street, family members said it wasn't until a Times reporter told them that they realized Yassiri had been killed by private guards and not U.S. soldiers, as they had been told.
"We lived in poverty and oppression during the time of Saddam and we were expecting the opposite when he left," said Adil Jasim, 26, a family friend. "I say that the situation is the same and even worse. American forces came to occupy and to achieve their goals. They don't care about Iraqis."
State Department officials did not respond to requests for comment on the incident. But a U.S. official with knowledge of the case said that embassy officials had reviewed the shooting and determined that employees of the security company involved, North Carolina-based Blackwater USA, had not followed proper procedures.
Two employees of the firm were fired, the U.S. official said. Blackwater declined to comment.
A former U.S. official acknowledged that such shootings harmed America's image in Iraq. Still, he said, the Americans must rely on security guards to move around Iraq since the military was focused on fighting insurgents.
"When something like this happens, you alienate people. It's a risk that you have to weigh," said the official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "There's no good answer."