Late one Saturday afternoon in May, a convoy of American private security guards and technical staff in white Ford trucks and an Excursion sports utility vehicle barreled through the battle-scarred streets of Fallujah, Iraq. The convoy, including 16 armed guards and technical staff, was working for Zapata Engineering, a company hired to 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.
"Had anyone in the convoy shot at the guard tower?" he asked.
"Negative," said a convoy member.
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 hours later, another Marine observation post was fired on by gunmen from vehicles matching the description of those involved in the earlier attack,” the statement continues. “Marines saw passengers in the vehicles firing out the windows."
This second incident coincides with the arrest of the Zapata men.
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.
'Roughed Up' in Fallujah
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 .
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
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
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.
All 19 of the Zapata convoy were imprisoned in small, 6 ft. by 8 ft. cells dressed in orange prison garb for three days without charges or legal counsel. Night and day, several said they listened to suspected Iraqi insurgents through the walls held nearby. The detained gunslingers say they were rarely let out of their cells and that the food they were first served -- Arab meals for the Iraqi prisoners -- was poor.
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
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
"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 gathering crowd
of Marines was saying things like “how is that
contractor money now,” said Blanchard, a Marine veteran.
The Marines tell a
"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
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
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."
Mark Schopper, a
Reno, Nev., lawyer, who has agreed to represent Raiche and
another contractor, Peter Ginter of Colorado Springs,
Colo., said a possible lawsuit may be in the making, but
is unsure of what law they might sue under. “It’s a
very gray area,” he said, adding that he would need to
confer more with his clients before deciding on a course
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
"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
"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
"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."