LONDON, England (CNN) -- Private security firms have made news recently for killing civilians in Iraq and for an inquiry into their powers at a special hearing in the U.S. Congress.
The car that security firm Unity Resources Group opened fire on, killing two women
On October 9, two women were killed in central Baghdad when a security convoy opened fire on their car (Read more). Australian private security contractor, Unity Resources Group confirmed one of its team was involved in the shooting of the two Armenian Christian women both in their 30s.
It is the latest in a spate of killings that have led to the withdrawal of some private security firms from Iraq and questions being asked of others: What is their role in Iraq and other war zones and how accountable are they for the deaths and injuries to civilians?
What is the significance of private security firms in Iraq?
Private security firms are now the third largest international contributor of forces to the war effort in Iraq -- after U.S. and British troops.
The firms (of which there are more that 170 operating in Iraq) do not have a military role, but their recruits are often ex-military and many join because the pay far exceeds that of the military. Often private contractors earn in excess of $100,000 a year.
Their jobs include the protection of personnel working for private companies and non-government organizations in Iraq. The U.S. also relies on them for protection of diplomats.
According to the Washington Post, "The security industry's enormous growth has been facilitated by the U.S. military, which uses the 20,000 to 30,000 contractors to offset chronic troop shortages.
"Armed contractors protect all convoys transporting reconstruction material, including vehicles, weapons and ammunition for the Iraqi army and police. They guard key U.S. military installations and provide personal security for at least three commanding generals, including Air Force Major. Gen. Darryl A. Scott, who oversees U.S. military contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The military plans to outsource at least $1.5 billion in security operations this year. The U.S. Army has also tested a plan to use private security on military convoys for the first time, a shift that would significantly increase the presence of armed contractors on Iraq's dangerous roads.
Critics argue the role of private security forces are blurring with those of the military.
Following the alleged shooting of 11 Iraqis in Baghdad by the security firm Black water on September 16, Iraq's interior ministry ordered the expulsion of Black water but Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State, whose diplomats depend on the company for protection, pleaded for them stay.
According to UK newspaper the Times: "The Blackwater incident triggered outrage among Iraqis who see security contractors as private armies that act with impunity."
Meanwhile the United Nations is urging the U.S. to ensure that American private contractors who commit offenses in Iraq are prosecuted.
The U.N. Assistance Mission to Iraq reported recently that there were several deaths involving private security firms this year.
Afghan authorities this week shut down two private security companies and said more than 10 others -- some suspected of murder and robbery -- would soon be closed, Afghan and Western officials said on Thursday, October 11.
On October 9, authorities shut down the Afghan-run security companies Watan and Caps, where 82 illegal weapons were found during two raids in Kabul, police Gen. Ali Shah Paktiawal said.
The Blackwater inquiry
According to The Guardian newspaper, the investigation of Blackwater and the shooting of Iraqis on September 16 has "opened the way for a debate in the U.S. about the privatization of war."
Speaking before a Congressional Oversight Committee, Blackwater head Erik Prince, 38, defended his company: "There has been a rush to judgment based on inaccurate information, and many public reports have wrongly pronounced Blackwater's guilt for the deaths of varying numbers of civilians," he said.
Prince denied the company was aggressive: "We only play defense," he said.
He said the company had clear rules of engagement. Its vehicles had warnings in Arabic to other drivers to keep at least 100 meters away. If a car, potentially a suicide bomber, approached at speed, Blackwater guards would provide further warnings through hand signals, then fire non-lethal incendiary devices and sometimes throw water bottles. If all that failed, a guard would shoot out the radiator to disable a vehicle, then a shot through the center of a windscreen to make it difficult to drive and, finally, shoot directly at the driver, Mr. Prince said.
Last week the U.S. State Department issued new guidelines to rein in and monitor Blackwater USA. Under orders issued by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, video cameras will be mounted in Blackwater vehicles and federal agents will ride with the security contractors who escort diplomatic convoys.
The reforms are aimed at "putting in place more robust assets to make sure that the management, reporting and accountability function works as best as it possibly can,'' said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
The State Department will also deploy dozens of additional in-house Diplomatic Security agents to accompany Blackwater guards.
On October 4, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would place all private government contractors in Iraq under U.S. criminal statutes. The new rules initially will apply only to Blackwater because the initial recommendations cover just Baghdad, where the company operates.
This could be expanded to include the other two firms, Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, which work in the north and south of Iraq, McCormack said.
The State Department is currently investigating 56 shooting incidents involving Blackwater guards this year as part of its review of private security firms. E-mail to a friend