The private security contractors working for the State Department have operated under murky legal guidelines. While U.S. laws apply to contractors working for the Pentagon, workers for the State Department do not fall clearly under American or Iraqi law, allowing some to escape punishment for wrongdoing.
In May 2005, an Iraqi cabdriver with two passengers in the back seat was traveling down a broad thoroughfare when a five-car U.S. convoy carrying U.S. officials heading back to the Green Zone approached from a side street. The driver, Mohammed Nouri Hattab, 34, stopped about 50 feet from the convoy, but bullets ripped into his Opel, killing one passenger and striking Hattab's shoulder.
"There was no warning," Hattab, who suffered lasting damage to his arm, later told a reporter. "It was a sudden attack."
Hattab was forced to go on disability leave from his Oil Ministry job at half pay and struggled without success to get compensation from the U.S. government.
Two Blackwater employees were fired for failing to follow proper procedures in the incident. They were flown back to the United States after an investigation by embassy security personnel, but faced no subsequent prosecution.
The procedure was similar in a well-known incident last Christmas Eve, when a Blackwater employee left a party and fatally shot a bodyguard to Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. Within 36 hours, security officials investigated the case and whisked the shooter back to the United States.
In the wake of the Sept. 16 shootings, Justice Department officials are looking into the Christmas Eve case to see if further action is warranted.
Many of the current and former U.S. officials said nearly all of the contractors they dealt with were highly professional. But in the violent atmosphere of Iraq, even a small percentage of "renegades" can inflict enormous damage, some said.
Iraqi politicians frequently have complained about the behavior of American security contractors, said Gans, who believes the constant friction undermined American efforts to improve relations.
"There are so many things going on in Iraq that seemed unfair," said Gans, now a visiting professor at Principia College in Illinois. "But this piece of it was unbelievable."
State Department leaders, appearing last week before a House committee investigating the issue, said that practical considerations had led to their decision to rely on private contractors for diplomatic security.
Faced with a need for protection and no access to the limited numbers of U.S. troops, the State Department had a choice between waiting at least 18 months to assemble a sufficient force of State Department staff security agents or hiring contractors. In addition, they said they did not believe at first that the Iraq mission would be long-lived.
While contractors are expensive, a single Bureau of Diplomatic Security agent costs nearly $500,000 a year, said Richard J. Griffin, assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security.
Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has studied the issue, said that though diplomats in the field clearly "have been upset with this," they have felt they had no other choice.
"It's not like there was ever a high-level review of this," he said. U.S. officials in charge "didn't want to make the hard choices. So they outsourced the hard choices."
Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Beirut, T. Christian Miller in Santa Rosa, Maggie Farley at the United Nations, Tina Susman in Baghdad and Laura King in Islamabad contributed to this report.