In its biannual human rights report released on Thursday, the agency

noted several reports of "killings carried out by privately hired contractors with security-related functions in support of US government authorities".

 

Civilian deaths

 

Guards working for the Australian-owned security company Unity Resources Group killed two women on Tuesday after they fired on an approaching car.

 

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The company said its guards feared a suicide attack and fired only after issuing several warnings for the car to stop.

 

But witnesses have said the vehicle was stationary when it was fired on.

 

Blackwater USA, the largest American firm working for the US State Department in Iraq, is also under scrutiny for killing 17 Iraqis after opening fire in central Baghdad on September 16.

 

The company said its guards were responding to an armed attack.

 

UNAMI called on the US government to establish mechanisms to hold security contractors accountable for unjustified killings and to ensure that offences committed in Iraq "by all categories of US contractor employees" are subject to prosecution under the law.

 

It also demanded the companies respect international humanitarian law, saying increasing reliance on private security firms "risks eroding the fundamental distinction between civilians and combatants because these people may not appear clearly as quite one or the other".

 

'Contractors' immunity'

 

An order issued by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004 before the Iraqi government gained sovereignty gives American security companies immunity from Iraqi prosecution on issues arising from their contracts.

 

The UN said the order "enables the US government to waive a contractor's immunity" but "to UNAMI'S knowledge it has not done so to date".

 

The UN report, which covers the period from April 1 to June 30, cited instances in which at least 88 civilians were said to have been killed in air strikes, including seven children who died when helicopters allegedly attacked an elementary school near the Iranian border in the volatile Diyala province.

 

The US military has said it is investigating the report.

 

But the UN agency said the findings of such investigations "are not systematically publicised".

 

It also detailed the alleged killing of 15 Iraqi civilians during US raid and search operations, including a 14-year-old boy.