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On the Wrong Side of 'Friendly Fire'

Tension and confusion are on the rise in Iraq after a group of American security contractors were thrown in jail under suspicion of shooting at the U.S. Marines in Fallujah.
 
 
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Late one Saturday afternoon in May, a group of armed American private security guards in white Ford trucks and an Excursion sports utility vehicle barreled through the battle-scarred streets of Fallujah, Iraq. The group was a security convoy from Zapata Engineering, a company hired to destroy enemy ammunition, such as shells and bombs, in Iraq. As they swerved through traffic, the men heard gunfire they could not identify.

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. Had anyone in the convoy shot at the guard tower, he asked. Negative, said a convoy member.

But the captain was not convinced. Sixteen American and three Iraqi security contractors in the Zapata convoy were then taken into custody presumably on suspicion of shooting at the Marine tower. They were thrown in jail on the evening of May 28.

Earlier that day, May 28, the soldiers recounted, "receiving small arms fire from gunman in several late-model trucks and sport utility vehicles" at approximately 2 P.M. "Marines also say they witnessed passengers in the vehicles firing at and near civilian cars on the street," the Marines' report continues.

According to a Marines press statement, "Three hours later, another Marine observation post was fired on by gunmen from vehicles matching the description of those involved in the earlier attack. Marines saw passengers in the vehicles firing out the windows." This second account coincides with the arrest of the Zapata men.

Today the contractors have been set free and each side tells a different story. Contractors and their families feel they were unfairly arrested and, once in the military prisons, they say they were treated with disrespect.

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 marked military vehicles.

The contractors are hired to work in cooperation with the military officers but many are paid far more. On top of these differences, the contractors tend follow a very different set of rules than their military counterparts.

"Roughed Up" in Fallujah

All 19 Zapata men were confined to small cells, measuring six feet by eight feet, and dressed in orange prison garb. They were imprisoned for three days without being charged or provided with legal counsel. Night and day, they listened to suspected Iraqi fighters held nearby. The contractors say they ate the same bad food that the Iraqi prisoners were served and were forced to urinate in bottles in their cells.

However, not all accounts of their capture line up. According to some of the contractors and their wives, the Marines also roughed up the security contractors before taking them to jail. They say they slammed the contractors down on the concrete one by one, bruising some pretty badly.

Several wives of the security contractors, back in the United States, waiting for their daily phone calls from their husbands in Iraq, began thinking the worst when the calls stopped coming.

"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.

Who is Zapata?
Zapata Engineering began its work in Iraq on September 30, 2003 as one of five companies originally hired under a $200 million contract to supervise the destruction and storage of U.S military ammunition worldwide.

Under a new contract, awarded on April 16, 2004 by the Army Corps of Engineers, a $43.8 million task order sent Zapata to Iraq to manage captured enemy ammunition(CEA). Some would be destroyed, while the rest was put away for safe-keeping until a new Iraq government could take charge.

The original assignment included $2.8 million for the salaries of a five person team, which broke down to remarkably high and controversial salaries.While $850,000 was earmarked for the company's overhead, insurance and profit costs, a single liaison officer in Iraq was budgeted for a $350,000 salary. The other four employees, identified as project managers, were budgeted for annual pay of $275,000, according to a recent Winston-Salem Journal report.

A similar investigation by the Center for Public Integrity calculated the actual salaries (based on a 84-hour work week) for the liaison officer at closer to $700,000 for the year and the managers at just over $520,000.

Zapata Engineering is one among scores of military contractors in Iraq that perform duties ranging from cooking food to conducting interrogations. The company was started in 1991 in North Carolina by Manuel Zapata, a Chilean-born immigrant. Initially he worked for contacts he made while serving as head of an international business development committee at the Charlotte Chamber in the mid-1980s.

Zapata soon discovered that the company qualified for preferential treatment in government contracts because, as a Hispanic citizen, he is considered a minority. "A project manager told me about it," Zapata told the Charlotte Business Journal at the time. "I had no idea it existed."

In 1996 this status allowed his company to win a 10-year, $32.5 million environmental engineering project involving military base closures with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Today the company has worked in Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, as well as China and Saipan. Many of these jobs involved the destruction and storage of unexploded bombs and outdated weaponry.

Other companies involved in the destruction and storage of captured enemy ammunition include Parsons Corp., EOD Technology Inc., Foster Wheeler Environmental Corp. (now Tetra Tech Inc.) and USA Environmental Inc., each of whom received a $65 million task order for initial operations in Iraq that were later increased to $66.9 million.

Although it is not a private security contractor, Zapata is allowed to subcontract or directly hire qualified security personnel as needed under provisions of their agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers, according to corps spokeswoman Kim Gillespie.

"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 man 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, he said.

The Marines tell a different story.

"The contract personnel were treated professionally and appropriately the entire time they were in the custody of military personnel," said Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lapan, a Marines public affairs officer, in an e-mail statement 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. Although released from jail on May 31, several security workers 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 says her 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," she 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."

Friendly Fire

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 10 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.

Legal Confusion

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."

David Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and on ABC and PBS.