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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraqi anger over guards from the U.S. Blackwater security firm it accuses of killing Iraqi civilians has highlighted the growing practice of using private companies to fill roles once performed by soldiers.
As Western governments have shrunk their armies but continued to wage war, they have increasingly turned to contractors to fill the gaps, providing everything from food to intelligence analysis.
To their supporters, these companies bring private sector efficiency to a combat zone and allow troops to focus on their main mission of fighting a war.
To their detractors, they are a poorly regulated shadow army that operates outside the law.
These companies started to grow and multiply after the end of the Cold War when the United States and other Western nations slashed the size of their militaries.
Business boomed when the United States went to war in Afghanistan and especially Iraq.
"We took a trend that was developing and put it on steroids," said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution analyst who has written a book on private military companies.
The United States had a vast need for manpower but did not have the forces in its volunteer armed forces or its allies to provide them, Singer said.
"What happens when you have a gap between supply and demand? Someone tries to fill it," he said.
In the Baghdad incident involving the North Carolina-based Blackwater, 11 people were shot dead. It was only the latest case in which allegations have been made against security contractors in Iraq and Singer said the sector needed more regulation and a greater willingness to enforce the rules.
"The only reason this is making the news is because the Iraqi government, basically, reacted after long years of inaction on the U.S. part," he said.
The Baghdad government said initially it would withdraw the license for Blackwater to operate in Iraq and would review the status of all security contractors.
In the U.S. Congress, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number two in the Democratic leadership in the Senate, said on Tuesday it was time to "lift the lid" on the contractors, and openly investigate their numbers and just what they do.
Although no one has an exact figure, there may be around 180,000 contractors in Iraq alone, said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group for private security and logistics companies.
If that figure is correct, there would be more contractors in Iraq than U.S. troops, which currently number 167,500.
Most contractors are engaged in reconstruction and other non-military tasks and most of them are Iraqi, said Brooks.
The group estimates there are between 20,000 and 25,000 security contractors in Iraq, about 2,000 of them American.
Brooks said he estimated about 2,000 to 3,000 security contractors in Iraq were from other Western nations, some 5,000 to 8,000 were from other foreign countries with the remainder Iraqi.
Brooks said members of his group, which includes Blackwater, agree to abide by a code of conduct and would support greater regulation.
He dismissed suggestions that contractors form a shadow force of mercenaries, saying most do not perform military missions. He said contracting was a way to provide services in a war zone and let troops focus on their primary mission.
"(Troops) go after the insurgents, they do the offensive combat operations but... when they come back to their base, the base is protected by private security... their latrines are all cleaned and maintained by private companies," he said.
"Their food comes from private companies and it's better than they've ever had in the past," he added.
Nick Bicanic, a Croatian-British filmmaker who made a documentary about security contractors entitled Shadow Company, said a wide variety of people were involved in the sector.
"I met a number of individuals that I would consider perhaps questionable and cowboy-like," he said.
"But I also met a lot of individuals who were extremely professional people and who were quite careful and understood exactly what their role was," he said.