manage a storage depot for captured ammunition in Iraq.
Snipers still regularly attack civilians and troops patrolling Fallujah, despite the fact that the US bombed the city heavily in April and November 2004 to flush out suspected rebels.
According to the Zapata contractors, one of their vehicles veered left on a road leading to a Marine checkpoint. It ran over the spike strip in the road near the guard house and the tire went flat. The anxious contractors jumped into action and put on a spare. Within minutes, they began rolling again.
A Marine captain brought the convoy to a halt.
Unconvinced, the captain then ordered the 16 American security guards and three Iraqi maintenance workers that were being transported to be taken into custody on suspicion of shooting at the Marine tower. Hours later, the convoy was jailed without charges on the evening of May 28.
Earlier that day, Marines had reported "receiving small arms fire from gunman in several late-model trucks and sport utility vehicles" at approximately 2 P.M. "Marines also say witnessed passengers in the vehicles firing at and near civilian cars on the street," according to a June 1 statement by Marine spokesman Lt. Col. David Lapan.
Three days later, the contractors were set free and now each side tells a different story. A number of contractors and several wives in the United States having spoken to their detained husbands now say the contractors were unfairly arrested, given rough treatment and imprisoned in ways that the US military usually reserves for suspected "insurgents" - not Americans working under a US military contract, eight of whom claim to be former Marines themselves.
Was this simply a case of "friendly fire" -- the term used when soldiers of the same flag shoot at one another by mistake? Is the confusion just a product of the "fog of war"? Or does it reflect a larger problem in Iraq, where the uniformed military works side-by-side with an estimated 25,000 armed civilian security guards?
The contractors are either paid by the Pentagon or by reconstruction contractors. Some wear camouflage gear but many dress casually and carry high-tech weaponry in an environment teeming with armed attackers who also eschew military uniforms. Like their enemies, private military contractors also travel in unmarked vehicles.
| Who is Zapata?
"Roughed Up" in Fallujah
But not all accounts of their detainment line up. Some of the security convoy said the Marines also roughed up the contractors before taking them to jail and that they were slammed down on the concrete one by one, bruising some pretty badly.
Several wives of the security contractors waiting for their daily phone calls to the United States from their husbands began thinking the worst when the telephones stopped ringing from Iraq. They wondered if their loved ones might be dead, helplessly wounded or taken hostage. Zapata, the Charlotte, N.C., employer of the imprisoned contractors, never contacted them until a friend located the company president begging for news, they say.
"There were all these families sitting at home not knowing what's going on," says Jana Crowder, who runs the Web site, American Contractors In Iraq.com from her home in Johnson City, Tennessee. Crowder, who started the site as a support network, has heard from a number of concerned wives of the Zapata contractors.
"This worries me about our damn military," Crowder adds. "Here in America, you have the right to a phone call."
Contractors also say they were treated badly in other ways. One of the contractors, Rick Blanchard whose home is in Shelbyville, Tenn., said a Marine put a knee to his neck and applied his full body weight as another cut his boots off and
stripped him of his wedding ring
and religious ornaments.
Twenty or 30 other Marines
watched and laughed, he added, as
a uniformed woman with a military dog snapped photographs. Taunts were made about the large salaries
of private security contractors, which are often more than $100,000 a year -- sometimes more than $200,000.
"The contract personnel were treated professionally and appropriately the entire time they were in the custody of military personnel," said Lapan from Camp Fallujah.
"During their detention, the contactors were provided three meals a day and given access to unlimited amounts of bottled water and given access to a chaplain. No phone calls were allowed in accordance with standard procedures."
The suggestion that the contractors were publicly ridiculed is "categorically untrue," said Lapan. "Before they were taken to the detention facility, they were placed on the ground, flex-cuffed and searched per standard practice. They were not thrown to the ground."
The series of events remain under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the contractors' weapons and vehicles were impounded, he added.
The contractors say they were never charged. They maintain their innocence, and believe their treatment was unjust and humiliating. All 16 Americans are said to have been prohibited from ever working again in the surrounding Anbar province. Although released from jail on May 31, those wanting to return to the United States were still waiting to leave five days later.
The contractors and their wives are now lining up lawyers back in the United States. One contractor's wife, Amber Raiche of Dayton, Nev., says her 34-year-old husband lost seven pounds while imprisoned. She believes the Marines were letting off steam over the rising tensions between armed contractors and the military.
"My husband is a former Marine and he loved this job," Raiche said, noting that many of the detained contractors are ex-Marines. "It's killing them knowing that Marines are doing this to them. These guys are putting their lives on the line, too."
This would not be the first time that private military guards have been accused of shooting on the streets of Iraq, nor would it be the first time that two groups of heavily armed civilians working for the occupation forces have attacked the military or each other inadvertently.
Four former security contractors and retired military veterans told NBC News in February that they had watched as innocent Iraqi civilians were fired upon, and one was crushed by a truck, by contractors employed by the American company Custer Battles.
In late November 2004 soldiers in a U.S. Humvee also fired ''six or seven rounds'' at the tires of a vehicle was carrying foreign security guards on the road to the Baghdad airport. Just one day earlier, an Iraqi police cruiser opened fire on a white sedan near the Babylon Hotel in central Baghdad. The occupants of the sedan, believed to be British private security guards, fired back killing one police officer and seriously wounding another.
Another company, Triple Canopy, which claims to have more elite ex-military special operations professionals than any other private security company, has also had several friendly fire incidents with military personnel in Iraq, says Joe Mayo, spokesman for the Illinois-based company. He adds that incidents have often been averted in as little as 30 seconds.
To add to the confusion, some private military contractors claim that the Iraqi resistance may be masquerading as private security convoys in their attacks, in part, to inflame hostility toward coalition forces occupying Iraq.
An alert, dated mid-May, distributed by one large security contractor to its employees and clients, notes several recent incidents north of Fallujah where citizens were being shot at from SUVs. These include two occasions of four white "GMC Suburban-type" trucks (of the type commonly driven by contractors) firing "well-aimed shots at vehicles on the side of the road."
"There is speculation that foreign fighters are disguising themselves," the alert says. "Insurgent involvement is entirely possible. This situation is of great concern."
Tension bubbles up
Placing armed private security forces alongside military personnel has led to growing confusion and tension as the two groups follow different rules and lack clear lines of communication.
"When you multiply the kinds of forces, you complicate the chains of command and the relationships among them," notes Peter Singer, a defense expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has written a book on private military companies. "The decisions that contractors make on their own can lead to friction and sometimes can make the military's job harder, particularly in the battle to win hearts and minds among the civilian population. You also have complications of differing pay, differing expectations, and differing rights and responsibilities. All that tension is now bubbling to the surface."
Hoping to better coordinate these private security companies operating in Iraq, the U.S. Army awarded a $293 million security contract to a controversial British firm, Aegis Defence Services Ltd. last May. Responsible for directing security efforts for ten prime contractors in Iraq, the company has met with mixed reviews.
"There is no assurance that Aegis is providing the best possible safety and security for government and reconstruction contractor personnel and facilities," the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction asserted in an audit released this April.
Journalist and author, Robert Young Pelton, who has spent months with private military contractors in Iraq and who is writing a book on the use of contractors in the war on terror, says that the military's choice to detain the Zapata group strikes him as the "first blatant example of contractors being treated as criminals."
"Animosity seems to be building between Bush's contractors and Bush's war," he observed.
Pelton believes that the treatment of Zapata's people has no legal basis since security contractors operate with very little legal jurisdiction hanging over them. "Contractors have carte blanche over there," he said. "The Marines knew who those people were. There's no reason to hold them for 72 hours."
But even those actively engaged with the operations of private security companies in Iraq seem to be in disagreement over legal jurisdiction.
In the final days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA administrator Paul Bremer issued an order, known as Memorandum 17, requiring all private security companies to register with Iraq's Ministries of Trade and Interior. The order mandated that contractors be licensed, subject to audits and that weapons be registered and licensed. Contractors were also expected to engage in force only in self-defense and the defense of civilians.
Lawrence Peter, the director of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq, says that if a private security company is not registered, then it operates illegally.
"I can say without a shadow of a doubt that there is no company named Zapata that is a licensed Private Security Company under the terms of CPA Memorandum 17," he said. "I do not know under what legal authority those men thought they were operating, but it was not in keeping with the law of Iraq nor consistent with what professional, responsible and law-abiding private security companies are doing here."
The Army Corps of Engineers, which has awarded multi-million-dollar contracts to Zapata Engineering to dispose of seized enemy munitions and explosives, has a more nuanced view. "They are not a security contractor," said Corps spokeswoman Kim Gillespie, but "under the provisions of their task order, they can subcontract or direct hire qualified security personnel as needed."
- 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign