A Fistful of Contractors: The Case for a Pragmatic Assessment of Private Military Companies in Iraq

David Isenberg


Growing attention is being paid to private military companies (PMCs) that began operating in Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion in 2003. This report by David Isenberg assesses PMCs in Iraq, analyses issues of concern and recommends improved regulatory oversight both in the US and internationally. The biggest obstacle to increased regulation of PMCs is a lack of political will.

While no one knows the exact number of PMCs operating in Iraq, the total number of non-Iraqi PMC employees is certainly less than 20,000. PMCs provide three categories of service in Iraq: personal security details for senior civilian officials; non-military site security; and non-military convoy security. Most PMCs are subcontracted to protect prime contractor employees, or are hired by Iraqi or foreign companies seeking business opportunities in Iraq.

The following are issues of concern about the use of PMCs in Iraq:

  • A drain on regular armed services: The lure of higher salaries is causing an exodus of US and British Special Forces to PMCs. US and British commanders have been forced to formulate new pay, benefits and educational incentives to retain these troops.
  • Political influence: Several PMCs use political connections with current or former US and British governments to land contracts. PMCs also use political campaign donations and lobbyists to influence government officials.
  • Control and accountability: The US Congress has expressed concerns about accountability of PMCs; new minimum regulatory standards for PMCs and mandatory operations guidelines are under consideration. In Britain, the House of Commons Defence Committee is set to investigate the role of PMCs in Iraq.
  • Legal status of PMCs: Questions persist about the so-called mercenary nature of PMCs and their combat status. Vetting procedures for potential employees are not universal; the arming of PMCs raises small arms non-proliferation and safety concerns.
  • Lessons from Abu Ghraib: An over-reliance on private contractors providing inadequately trained personnel contributed to the scandal at Abu Ghraib. At least two reports in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib implicate PMC personnel and cite a lack of proper vetting of PMC employees.

PMCs have done reasonably well performing their contracts in Iraq and have not been given sufficient credit for their work. However, lack of strategic planning of the use of PMCs in Iraq led to poor coordination of their work. The initial tendering process was hasty; some contracts were awarded based on lobbying or political influence.

Deficiencies in the use and operations of PMCs elicit the following recommendations:

  • Improved US regulation, including greater use of auditors to handle increased oversight responsibilities and closing of loopholes in the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act;
  • PMCs should ensure equal levels of training for both home and third country personnel and improve pre-screening of employees; and
  • Industry-wide standards need to be established and enforced.

The biggest obstacle to international efforts to regulate and oversee PMCs is a lack of political will. Most states find PMCs useful and oppose efforts to restrict them. Within the current political environment, the most feasible legal changes include:

  • Extension of the International Court of Justice to PMC activities;
  • Negotiation of a new convention on the use of armed non-military contractors by occupying forces; and
  • Harmonisation of national laws to create common standards and a universal approach to the regulation and use of PMCs.


Isenberg,D., 2004, ‘A Fistful of Contractors: The Case for a Pragmatic Assessment of Private Military Companies in Iraq’, Research Report 2004.4, British American Security Information Council, London.