For hundreds of foreign companies in the lucrative but perilous pursuit of business in violence-racked Iraq, security - especially the use of private forces instead of military personnel - has become an increasingly vexing issue.
As violence surged to new levels last month, many companies felt a need for the help of more security personnel. But they - as well as the US government, which hires private contractors for some security roles - are finding it harder to persuade highly trained, professional guards from the private sector to put their lives at risk, observers say.
The result, critics fear, may be a growing force of less disciplined, more mercenary guards thrown into a volatile situation with few rules to guide their actions.
Within Congress and among security experts, concern about the proliferation of private-sector guards in Iraq is mounting.
"A lot of those people are cowboys - cowboys and scary people," says Steven Schooner, a contracting expert at George Washington University Law School.
In a letter last month to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, 13 congressional Democrats advanced the case that war-zone security was a job for the military, not private forces.
Over the past month, ever since the bodies of US contractors working for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) were hung from a bridge near Fallujah, many US and other foreign firms have shifted as much as 25 percent of their operating budgets to security, observers say. Security firms represent the third largest contributor of forces to the occupation, after the US and British militaries.
"Generally, what we do is fill the gaps that the military or police departments don't have the resources to fill," says David Katz, president of Global Security Group, a consulting firm with offices in New York and Chicago and clients in Iraq. "The best people have a combination of paramilitary experience and protective experience."
In Iraq, with highly trained military personnel sustaining casualties, such gap- filling may be too great a task, Mr. Katz adds. As trained contractors, who are often ex-military types, decline assignments in Iraq despite the high pay, "you may have other people filling the gap."
In general, some analysts say, it is more cost effective to hire support staff - cooks and truck drivers, for example - than to have trained soldiers fill those roles. That's despite a pay scale that has spiked in Iraq. Thomas Hamill, the driver for a Halliburton subsidiary who escaped his Iraqi captors over the weekend, went to the war zone for the pay - and, even now, may stay.
On the tactical security front, the number of private workers is unknown - "a problem of lack of accounting and accountability," says Peter Singer, national security fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But he estimates that as many as 20,000 people in Iraq now handle jobs that used to be held down by military personnel. "Everything from logistics to training to security work," says Mr. Singer, regardless of whether the client is the US Defense Department, the CPA, or private firms.
The problem isn't only the numbers of these private guards, it's the fuzziness of their roles, critics say. Private firms - even ones with well-credentialed staff - have already stepped well beyond the job of guarding facilities and conducting other protective services, says Mr. Schooner.
"The bottom line is that contractors are fighting now," he says, citing a recent action in which security firm Blackwater USA reportedly engaged Iraqi resistance fighters to support US marines. The company "brought in their own reinforcements, they brought in helicopters, they brought in munitions," says Schooner.
"We've already got a contract on the street ... to use a firm" to secure an area in Baghdad known as the green zone, he adds. "That's military, man. That's all there is to it."
In the near term, Schooner says, tolerating private-sector mission creep toward soldiering in Iraq could allow Washington to "mask the human cost" of the military and reconstruction efforts, because deaths of private security guards are more difficult to monitor than are military losses.
The Defense Department counters that a bright, clear line exists between security and combat operations. Private security firms the department hires are forbidden to cross it. "None of them have been hired for combat operations," says Lt. Col. Joe Yoswa, a DOD spokesman.
The US government has hired private security firms for specific tasks, such as guarding top civilian administrator Paul Bremer and various facilities, which frees up soldiers for combat. Ties between the US government and specific security firms get murky, because many of the firms it hires subcontract work to others.
Government contractors employ small arms and their use of force is essentially limited to self-defense under "the laws of the country," Colonel Yoswa says. "Some companies that are working for the coalition do have some limited immunities." He would not elaborate on what that means.
Murkiness about the rules of engagement is what bothers critics and has the Defense Department scrambling.
"There is no policy, that is why we're trying to develop one," says Glenn Flood, another Defense Department spokesman. "We want to try to get something that can clarify, because right now we're all over the place - or they're all over the place - in trying to come up with something."
Singer is pleased to see more attention being paid to the roles of private companies in international conflict. Firms that did not even exist before the Iraq conflict have won major contracts there, he says.
"Suddenly people on the congressional and public side are saying, 'We didn't know there were this many guys, and they're doing what?' " Singer adds. "There is now a push for regulation and accounting that ... hadn't gotten any traction before."