US officials on Thursday told scores of firms offering security in Iraq that their personnel will lose immunity from prosecution under a new US-Iraq security pact due to take effect in January.
The officials told reporters that they briefed delegates from 172 security contractors employing nearly 175,000 Americans, Iraqis and others in Iraq about the new rules under a pact set to replace a UN mandate expiring December 31.
Security firms heard how many rules and procedures for troops and contractors were "rightfully changed as a result of this historic development," the officials told reporters, quoting from a statement they read to the firms.
The firms provide armed escorts and other security measures to US and Iraqi government officials, as well as foreign diplomats and members of non-government organizations like aid groups.
Under the changes, contractors "can no longer expect that they will enjoy the wide ranging immunity from Iraqi law that has been in effect since 2003," when US-led forces invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, according to the statement.
The firms were reminded that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi political leaders have said publicly that "they plan to take the legal steps necessary to remove these immunities at an early date," the statement said.
Contractors "can expect to be fully subject to Iraqi criminal and civil law and to procedures of the Iraqi judicial system," it said, adding their status will be in line with that of contractors in Afghanistan and other countries.
The US embassy in Baghdad will work with the Iraqi government to help ensure that any US government contractor "accused of a crime is treated fairly," the statement said.
The official draft of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which has still to be approved by the Iraqi parliament, has not yet been made public.
A Department of Defense official told reporters that he was not aware of any security firm wishing to leave Iraq over the loss of immunity.
"We have had for months informal discussions," the official said on the condition of anonymity.
"Some of our contractors expressed concerns ... None of them, to my knowledge ... have made the explicit statement if 'I loose immunity, I will walk,'" the official said.
"I would suspect there is a wait and see attitude, to see how this in fact plays out," the official added.
The lifting of immunity was expected since 17 Iraqi civilians died in Baghdad in September last year when guards escorting a diplomatic convoy on behalf of private security firm Blackwater USA opened fire at a crossroads.
The firm says its guards were acting in self-defense.
There are more security contractors than there are US troops, which currently number around 150,000 men and women.
The Defense Department says it employs 163,000 contractors in Iraq, with 17 percent of them US citizens, 49 percent of them Iraqi and the rest from other countries.
The State Department says it employs 5,500 contractors, the vast majority of them US citizens, while the US Agency for International Development employs 4,800 security personnel.