A group of American security guards in Iraq have alleged they were beaten, stripped and threatened with a snarling dog by US marines when they were detained after an alleged shooting incident outside Falluja last month.
"I never in my career have treated anybody so inhumane," one of the contractors, Rick Blanchard, a former Florida state trooper, wrote in an email quoted in the Los Angeles Times. "They treated us like insurgents, roughed us up, took photos, hazed [bullied] us, called us names."
A Marine Corps spokesman denied that abuse had taken place and said an investigation was continuing. According to the marines, 19 employees of Zapata Engineering, including 16 Americans, were detained after a marine patrol in Falluja reportedbeing fired on by a convoy of trucks and sports utility vehicles. The marines also claim to have seen gunmen in the convoy fire at civilians.
This is believed to be the first time that private military contractors have been detained in Iraq by the US military, and it has reignited debate about their status and accountability.
The security guards claim the shooting incident was a case of mistaken identity. A spokeswoman for the company told the LA Times that the guards had fired warning shots into the air when an unidentified vehicle approached their vehicle as it passed through Falluja, but had not fired at any marines.
Mark Schopper, a lawyer for two of the contractors, told the newspaper that his clients, both former marines, were subjected to "physical and psychological abuse". He said they had told him that marines had "slammed around" several con tractors, stripped them to their underwear and placed a loaded weapon near their heads.
"How does it feel to be a big, rich contractor now?" one of the marines is alleged to have shouted at the men, in an apparent reference to the large sums of money private contractors can make in Iraq.
Lieutenant Colonel David Lapan, a Marine Corps spokesman, who did not respond to emails from the Guardian, said in an email to the LA Times: "The Americans were segregated from the rest of the detainee population and, like all security detainees, were treated humanely and respectfully."
The American contractors, who were working in explosives disposal, were arrested on May 18 and imprisoned for three days. All have since left Zapata Engineering, which is based in North Carolina, and have returned to the US. They also complained they were made to wear orange prison uniforms and fed the same "bad food" as Iraqi prisoners.
According to Peter Singer, a Brookings Institute scholar and author of the book Corporate Warriors, private military contractors in Iraq are operating in a black hole as they do not fall within the military chain of command. "What appears to have happened here is tension between forces bubbling to the surface," he told the Guardian.
But he said the incident also raised the question of what happens to contractors if they are caught doing something wrong, such as firing on civilians, as their legal status is not defined. "If the marines think [the contractors] did do something illegal there is no process they can go through. Who are they going to hand them over to?" Mr Singer said. "There have been more than 20,000 [contractors] on the ground in Iraq for more than two years and not one has been prosecuted for anything."
- 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign