By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's government intends to impose tough restrictions on private security companies to rein in what amounts to a "giant army" threatening the country's stability, a senior security official said.
U.S. troops left Iraq in mid-December, but tens of thousands of private security guards remain, helping to protect mainly foreign workers and facilities in a country where daily violence is still a major threat.
Many Iraqis associate the private groups with atrocities carried out after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. In one of the worst cases, five employees of security firm Blackwater were charged over the deaths of 14 Iraqi civilians shot dead in Baghdad in 2007.
"What the Interior Ministry worries about is that there is a giant army of these companies on the streets with their weapons," Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Asadi told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday.
The government had submitted a bill to parliament that would impose new restrictions on these firms to reduce the number of contractors and their private arsenals, Asadi said.
"It does not matter if these weapons are licensed. They pose a security risk that must be addressed," Asadi added.
Asadi's comments came after the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said it was evaluating how to reduce the number of contractors serving its diplomats, citing costs.
The 109 security companies registered in Iraq employ over 36,000 contractors, more than half of them foreigners, drawn from the United States, Britain, South Africa, Arab states and other countries, Asadi said.
They help guard embassies and oil installations, protect Iraqi officials, and secure convoys.
"What we are afraid of is that there are undeclared companies, unrevealed numbers of contractors who are working secretly and maybe weapons used by these companies that we have not discovered yet," said Asadi.
The bill which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government has drafted includes measures aimed at reducing the number of companies by imposing rules that will be particularly cumbersome for smaller firms, forcing them out of business, Asadi said.
"A bill of law was sent to parliament for discussions to find a formula to tighten the scope of the work which will allow mainly the big companies to work here," he said.
"Maybe we can increase the insurance costs, which will reduce the number of companies and exclude the small ones."
Many foreign security contractors have already complained of difficulties such as long delays in obtaining visas, licenses and permits to operate in Iraq.
Asadi said he recognized that foreign companies in Iraq wanted to hire such security groups because they did not always trust local operations. But, he said, contractors should work under tougher restrictions.
"In the end, checking up on, restricting and conducting field visits on these companies will limit the damage they may do," he added.
OPEC member Iraq has signed a series of service contracts with foreign oil companies aimed at increasing production capacity to 12 million barrels per day by 2017 from roughly 3 million bpd currently.
Asadi said he was also worried that some of these companies were gathering intelligence for their employers.
"What we are afraid of is the intelligence side. Some of these companies have agendas and are connected with countries, and these countries are using them," Asadi said. "Actually some of them (countries) are using the mercenaries to cause instability and disorder in this country."
(Reporting by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Francois Murphy and Andrew Heavens)