Some of these private guards are former soldiers. But some have virtually no training and may actually be contributing to Iraq's security risks.
"I think it reflects the growing concern -- certainly within the Labor Party, but also within Iraq -- as to the prevalence of these armed groups that are seemingly out of the control of the interim government, often out of the control of the coalition forces, as well," said Gareth Stansfield of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. "So, it is very difficult to imagine how security in Iraq can be developed, when there are so many extra-state forces."
The British government has said it recognizes the difficulty of the problem. Yet, a spokesman for the British Foreign Office maintains that private firms have a role to play in Iraq because the armed forces are simply unable to take care of everything.
"Clearly, the private sector has an important part to play, providing security services," the spokesman said. "And, it is important that Foreign Office staff working in Iraq, as well as civilian contractors, who are providing vital reconstruction work, are able to carry out their work safely. So, there is an important role to play there."
The spokesman added that Iraqi authorities already offer some regulation of private security workers. Foreign security staff are required to register with the Iraqi Interior and Trade ministries. And, he added, there are special British guidelines as well.
"As far as the U.K. companies that are working out there, there is also guidance as far as civil servants who are dealing with their arrangements to ensure that their contracts are carefully worded," the spokesman said. "To ensure that they are acting responsibly and sensibly, and also that they are carrying out their work properly."
Yet, according to experts, these arrangements are proving insufficient, especially because the money involved is very attractive. With government contracts alone worth some $30 million a year, the private security business has been drawing some adventurists. And, as Stansfield explained, Britain's options are limited.
"Obviously, some pressure can be brought to bear on British companies registered in the U.K. with U.K. headquarters, but many of these companies have subsidiary offices and spread across many countries -- they are transnational in their nature," Stansfield said. "So, I should imagine it would actually be quite difficult to stop one of these countries, for example, taking an American contract, or a contract to involve the interim government of Iraq. So, I do think that the British government's ability to fully control the situation is somewhat limited."
The British government began looking at its choices as early as two years ago, before Parliament stepped up pressure for tough new laws, according to the Foreign Office spokesman.
"This was looked at in 2002, and it was felt at that time that there were difficult questions of definition in deciding how to approach such legislation and regulation," the spokesman said. "Nonetheless, the Foreign Secretary has recently asked officials here to undertake a further review of options for regulation."
Stansfield maintained that the government has a limited scope in what it can do, even with any new laws being passed. He recalled a special legislation regulating the actions of private companies in Iraq during the UN sanctions regime. But at the moment, he said, "there is no internationally coordinated approach."
"It's pointless to do that if there isn't some larger international framework under which it is operating. So, I think it would come down to yes, maybe some limited amount of legislation, but ultimately a degree of moral pressure brought to bear on these companies," Stansfield said. "But then, let's face it, if you are a company involved with employing mercenaries in this private security business, then the morals and the ethics of what you are actually dealing with are perhaps at the bottom of your list, even if it is on the list at all."
Under Jack Straw, however, the Foreign Office is committed to legislate the practice of private security workers -- not least because similar problems with security firms have been noted from Afghanistan. And, as the Foreign Office spokesperson noted, parliamentary pressure is not likely to cease anytime soon.
"So, although this is a very complex area which would require very careful thought -- as far as definition of the companies' work is concerned, which companies would be covered -- it's an area that we consider as important to be regulated effectively," the spokesman said. "And it's something that we are looking at, at the moment. And the foreign secretary has made very clear that the government will keep Parliament fully informed of his thinking on this important issue."
For now, however, Stansfield said he still sees difficulties in implementing the new laws.
"Iraq is certainly characterized right now by a plethora of private organizations, and it is very difficult to keep track of them," Stansfield said. "So, one could imagine that ones that are more closely associated with the British government and the British military may welcome its intervention to control what is happening on the ground, but it is a very, very difficult task."