Thousands of heavily armed private security contractors could be expelled from Iraq in a government crackdown.
For more than two years such contractors have roamed with impunity. But now the interior ministry has imposed rules requiring all their firms to be registered and weapons to be carried only by guards holding an official licence.
If any of the companies is considered to be a threat or if it angers a government official its official permit could be revoked and the business ordered to depart.
About 25,000 security contractors, many of them British, American and South African ex-servicemen, lured to Iraq by wages of up to ú750 a day, are estimated to be in the country providing protection for official buildings, supply convoys or visiting businessmen.
They are highly unpopular with locals. Convoys of contractors have become a common sight on a journey through Baghdad since the March 2003 US-led invasion.
Adorned in sunglasses and bullet-proof vests, they travel in white four-wheel-drive vehicles with gun barrels protruding from the windows.
Many refuse to obey road signs and consider traffic jams a security risk so barge through the lines of vehicles which are often forced to pull over rapidly on to pavements.
Their lack of official status has long been a concern and those operating on US department of defence contracts are free from risk of legal penalty under the Iraqi judicial system if they killed anyone in a firefight.
But under the new rules confirmed yesterday all such firms will be brought under the authority of the Baghdad government.
All companies will have to provide details of their number of employees, jobs undertaken and office addresses.
Most significantly their employees will no longer be allowed to possess a weapon without approval. Many of the firms have considerable firepower. As well as AK-47s and assault rifles some have heavy machineguns and anti-tank rocket launchers.
One company, Blackwater, even has its own fleet of helicopters which criss-cross Baghdad with machine guns poking out from the side.
When the deadline for registration is reached next month anyone unofficially holding a gun will face arrest and a prison term.
An interior ministry official said the rules were intended as the first step towards creating a regulatory environment that would dictate the companies' work practices.
The initiative has been largely welcomed by established firms in Iraq.
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