Private military companies operating in Iraq are raising the eyebrows of Democratic lawmakers, who say they are costly, not regulated well enough and are being used to make the Iraq war more palatable to the public.

"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before we continue to outsource these positions," said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Rep. Jan Schakowsky (search), D-Ill.

Critics say these hired guns, who draw salaries two, three or four times higher than soldiers, are used to avoid the politically sensitive implications of having to send more American troops. In Iraq, 15,000 or more armed contractors provide security and thousands of others work as engineers, truck drivers, cooks, etc. The proliferation of these contractors has been highlighted by the recent brutal killing in Fallujah of four men employed by Blackwater U.S.A. (search) as well as the execution Wednesday of an Italian contractor.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., has been a leading critic of the way these contractors are used.

"I think we have to regulate these contractors. We have to know who is there and what they're doing not only for their own protection, but also so our military can coordinate effectively," Reed told Fox News.

He acknowledged that the contractors relieve some of the burden from the military, but he said they need to be better accounted for. Calling it "almost a unique situation," Reed said, "this is in many respects a large paramilitary force."

Last week, a group of Democratic senators, including Reed, expressed their concerns in a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (search).

"It would be a dangerous precedent if the United States allowed the presence of private armies operating outside the control of governmental authority and beholden only to those who pay them. In the context of Iraq, unless these forces are properly screened by United States' authorities and are required to operate under clear guidelines and appropriate supervision, their presence will contribute to Iraqi resentment. The presence and number of these private security personnel again raise the question of the adequacy of United States troop levels in Iraq," the senators wrote.

The 13 Democratic senators, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search) and Carl Levin, the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, called on Rumsfeld to provide a tally of the armed non-Iraqi security personnel in Iraq.

They also asked that the Defense Department adopt written guidelines, "including the legal justifications for their use, both now and after June 30, 2004; the rules of engagement for these contractors; and the lines of coordination among U.S. military forces, the Coalition Provisional Authority (and after June 30th, the sovereign Iraqi entity) and the contractor community."

On the House side, Schakowsky questioned why the military needs to pay some contractors $100,000 or more while many American soldiers are getting paid half or a third of that. She also raised questions of accountability.

"The track record of some of these contractors has not been very good," Elshami said, noting the allegations that Dyncorps employees were involved with rape, drugs and prostitution rings in Bosnia. Dyncorps also has a security presence in Iraq.

Despite the Democratic critiques, industry experts and Pentagon officials insist that these employees are professional as well as vital to the mission in Iraq.

"I think the companies largely have been extremely competent and extremely professional," said Doug Brooks, president of International Peace Operations Association (search).

The outsourcing of roles from the military to the private sector is a longstanding military priority dating to the early 1990s, and hiring contractors has an even longer history, dating back to the Civil War, said Maj. Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman.

"Contractors are a primary way that we have used and are using now to perform functions that will help us maintain combat power," Tallman said. Contracting is indispensable now that America has an Army that is smaller than it has been since 1950, he said.

Tallman said the military arranges directly for personal security detachments for Bremer and others, and also requires its primary contractors to hire their own security subcontractors. "That's fine. That's done all the time," Tallman said.

Under the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (search), the military hires non-military personnel to cook, clean, put up tents, deliver the mail and other duties, said Jan Finegan, a spokeswoman for Army Materiel Command. Kellogg, Brown & Root (search) has been awarded the contract for this program. KBR then hires subcontractors including private military companies whose sole function is to protect other KBR staffers.

America's military has shrunk by one-third since the end of the Cold War, but America has maintained significant international commitments resulting in a great demand for private contractors.

Hiring contractors "is a way for us to have fewer troops, not [in Iraq], but in the Army, period. Since we don't have those troops to do that, we have to have contractors come in wherever we are," Finegan said.

Although Democratic lawmakers raised questions about the costs associated with the contractors, Finegan said it is cheaper to use contractors because they are not on the payroll when the military does not need them.