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Blackwater private-security contractors secure the site of a roadside bombing near the Iranian embassy in central Baghdad in 2005. - 


KAI RYSSDAL: One day after a hearing into reports of trigger-happy private military contractors in Iraq, the House of Representatives has moved to hold those contractors accountable. The growing role of private security forces in war zones has exposed a legal gray area that shields some contractors from U.S. or Iraqi laws.

Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports.

STEVE TRIPOLI: The legislation would bring federal contractors working alongside U.S. troops under the criminal jurisdiction of U.S. courts. Sponsors say a loophole in the law has allowed alleged criminal behavior by security guards working for private contractor Blackwater USA to go unpunished.

The bill calls for special FBI investigative units in war zones and requires disclosure from the Justice Department of charges and legal actions against contractors.

DOUG BROOKS: Anything that enhances the accountability is good for our industry.

Doug Brooks is president of the International Peace Operations Association, which represents private security companies. He says a clarification of legal liability is something they've been asking for for decades.

BROOKS: There have been a lot of accusations but not a whole lot of follow-up from the government side -- and that's frustrating from our industry perspective, because we get hammered on this issue a lot.

More regulations on private contractors may take away some of their war-zone advantages, such as their quick adaptability and cost-effectiveness. But David Isenberg at the British American Security Information Council says it's worth it.

DAVID ISENBERG: The private contractors are being employed in pursuit of a public goal -- they are carrying out U.S. military and U.S. foreign policy. Their actions reflect directly on the U.S. and its standing in the world. That price you may pay in terms of inefficiency is actually, I think, a public good.

Senate legislation to impose U.S. criminal jurisdiction over private contractors is being drafted by Illinois Democrat Barack Obama.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.