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The shadowy private contractors in Iraq

The decision by the Iraqis to ban the private contracting company, Blackwater, from Iraq is a hollow one. As a result of a law passed via Paul Bremmer when he presided over Iraq following the invasion of Iraq, all private contractors have diplomatic immunity. Simply put they can't be expelled. More surprisingly, there are said to be some 180,000 private contractors in Iraq - some 20,000 more than the US military forces.

The BBC backgrounds the shadowy Blackwater group:

"The Iraqi government's decision to suspend the licence of private security contractor Blackwater USA has thrust the secretive firm into the spotlight.

Blackwater is at the very centre of the controversy surrounding the "outsourcing" of war, where private contractors are taking on tasks usually carried out by government soldiers.

Based at a vast ranch complex in North Carolina and calling itself "the most comprehensive professional military... company in the world", the firm is under investigation after a gunfight in Baghdad in which eight civilians were killed.

In 2004, the firm hit the headlines when the burnt and mutilated bodies of its contractors were hung from a bridge across the river Euphrates in the Iraqi city of Falluja, to the cheers of an angry mob.

Four Blackwater men died during that ambush but, despite the deaths, the company's contractors remain among the most numerous in Iraq.

Critics say such contractors, often elite soldiers recently retired from military special operations units, are little more than mercenaries, awarded lucrative packages to fight on demand in lawless areas.

And, according to human rights campaigners, their uncertain legal status in Iraq - straddling international law, US regulations and Iraqi legislation - enables them to act with virtual impunity."

Meanwhile, ABC Radio National's Breakfast program had a piece on Blackwater this morning:

"Iraq has announced that it will review the status of all private security companies, after US company Blackwater was involved in a shooting incident which left 11 people dead in Baghdad.

The move comes a day after the Iraqi government ordered Blackwater to suspend all of its activities and leave the country.

Iraq says the private contractors involved in the shootings fired randomly at citizens in a crowded square, killing bystanders and a policeman.

The company maintains it was acting in self-defence, after a motorcade it was protecting came under mortar attack."

Robert Young Pelton is author of "Licensed To Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror". He joined ABC Radio National from San Diego here.

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