WASHINGTON — Matt Raiche knew he was in trouble when the Marines handed him an orange jumpsuit, a bottle to urinate in, a Quran and a Muslim prayer rug.
Marine guards put the former Marine into a six-foot by six-foot concrete cell, locked the steel door and told him to keep his mouth shut. In cells nearby, he heard imprisoned insurgents screaming in Arabic.
"They took us to be ... insurgent terrorists," said Raiche, 34, one of 16 U.S. contractors arrested by the Marine Corps last month on suspicions of firing indiscriminately at U.S. soldier and Iraqi civilians. "We said we were Americans. We didn't know what was going on."
So began three days of captivity for the employees of North Carolina-based Zapata Engineering, apprehended after Marines allegedly witnessed them firing weapons from an armored convoy passing through Fallujah.
While details remain unclear, the May 28 incident reflects the long simmering tensions between the military and private business in Iraq. Even though the government has hired private companies to perform many functions in Iraq -- including security -- it does not formally oversee their activities, allowing misunderstandings and disputes to fester.
Raiche said the Marines seemed angry at the higher salaries that contractors in Iraq enjoy: "One Marine gets me on the ground and puts his knee in my back. Then I hear another Marine say, 'How does it feel to make that contractor money now?' "
The contractors who were detained have said they are innocent of the accusations. They were released and are in the process of returning home. Three unarmed Iraqi subcontractors for Pasadena, Calif.-based Parsons Corp. who were passengers in the convoy were also held and released.
The Zapata contractors, who were held in a Marine base near Fallujah, acknowledged firing warning shots to prevent a suspicious vehicle from approaching their convoy but said they never aimed at Marines or civilians.
Marines officers confirmed that the Department of Justice was reviewing the incident to determine whether criminal charges would be filed. The contractors were questioned by both the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Services.
The Marine documents said the Zapata contractors, besides firing on civilians,had "unauthorized" weapons in their vehicles -- AT4 anti-tank weapons and grenades. Several of the contractors said they were given those weapons by the Marines in the months before the confrontation. The Marines said they could not immediately confirm the source of the weapons. The incident also renewed questions about the general treatment of prisoners in Iraq by the U.S. military. One of the few things that both sides largely agree on was that the Marines treated the contractors like any other detainees -- treatment that the contractors found humiliating and abusive.
The Marines are investigating the contractors' abuse complaints, but have found "nothing to substantiate those claims," said Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Marine spokesman.
The case is believed to be the first time that U.S. military has detained private contractors in Iraq on suspicion of endangering Iraqi civilians or U.S. soldiers.
By some estimates, more than 20,000 security personnel operate in Iraq -- a private army that is the second-largest armed foreign contingent in the country, surpassed only by the 135,000 U.S. troops.
The contractors perform security functions that thinly stretched U.S. forces would be hard pressed to provide, such as armed protection for Iraqi and U.S. civilian officials, including the U.S. ambassador. Many of the contractors are retired soldiers from the United States, England and Australia. Others once served in the military of the then-Apartheid government of South Africa or for the militaries of Colombia and El Salvador, long linked to human rights violations.
The private security contractors work in a legal shadow world, largely unregulated by either the U.S. or the Iraqi government. Under an order signed in the closing days of the U.S.-led occupation in June 2004 by then-Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer III, contractors are legally immune from prosecution in Iraq, so long as the actions in question were performed during the course of their work.
Almost since the beginning of the U.S-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, there have been tensions between the private forces and the U.S. military.
Soldiers resent the perks enjoyed by the private contractors. Private contractors routinely make three or four times the salary that U.S. soldiers do -- upward of $100,000 a year. Some U.S. soldiers and officials see the private contractors as "cowboys" who enrage ordinary Iraqis with wanton behavior. Private contractors routinely have been observed by U.S. journalists pointing their guns and firing rounds at Iraqis who come too close. Contractors have been seen racing around Baghdad, Fallujah and other hotspots in armored SUVs, forcing ordinary Iraqis off the road. Marine Corps Col. Thomas X. Hammes said at a conference earlier this year in Washington that the military and the contractors had two different objectives. The military wanted to win the war, while contractors wanted to serve their client.
He pointed to the private protection provided to Bremer as an example of where interests diverged. The United States wanted to win over Iraqis, he said. But the aggressive tactics the contractors used to protect Bremer sometimes alienated Iraqis, he said.
"We can always get another ambassador," Hammes joked grimly.
Many private contractors, meanwhile, pride themselves on their professionalism. The highest paid contractors are older men with extensive combat experience. Some view young U.S. soldiers as inexperienced and dangerous.
There have been numerous instances of U.S. soldiers mistakenly firing at security contractors -- so called "blue on blue" incidents in the parlance of Iraq, similar to "friendly fire" between U.S. troops.
"If only the Marines would detain Iraqis who fire at (private security contractors) with the same vigor and enthusiasm," said one anonymous poster on an e-mail forum for private military contractors.
Security contractors also complain that they do not have many of the resources given to the military. Contractors are not supposed to have access to military intelligence nor carry heavy weapons.
The Fallujah case "brings to the fore this tension of using both private and public forces," said Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution think tank who has written on private contractors. "Coordinating military forces is difficult. ... Now it's even more difficult because you're adding private actors."
According to Lapan, the Marine spokesman on the Fallujah incident, Marines witnessed a convoy of trucks and SUVs firing at soldiers and civilians on May 28 at about 2 p.m.
Some three hours later, another group of Marines observed similar vehicles firing at a Marine guard post. The Marines stopped the convoy and detained the 16 Americans and three Iraqis traveling in the vehicles, placing them in holding cells in Camp Fallujah.
The contractors previously have denied firing any shots at the Marines, and on Friday two of them, Raiche and Rick Blanchard, repeated those denials. Blanchard, 42, a former Marine and Florida state trooper, said he believed that the Marines had confused the Zapata convoy with an earlier security convoy that had fired indiscriminately.
Raiche said that one contractor fired three shots into the ground in front of an approaching Iraqi vehicle as the convoy passed through Fallujah.
"That's standard procedure," said Raiche, a 34-year-old former Marine. "We don't want any vehicle inside our convoy. It could be a car bomb."
Blanchard and Raiche claimed they were physically and mentally abused by their Marine guards. They said the Marines taunted them about their allegedly large salaries, slammed them around and threatened them with a guard dog.
"They were treating us like we were the insurgents," said Blanchard. "It broke my heart the way the Marines treated us."
The military denies any physical abuse occurred. "We treat all detainees professionally and in accordance with strict procedures," said Lapan, noting that the Marines had separated the Americans from insurgents, and that the men were eventually given U.S.-style food.
Lapin said the release of the men after three days does not mean the Marines considered them innocent.
The Marines gave each of the 16 contractors a letter on June 5 barring them from further operations in the western Anbar region.
"Your convoy was speeding through (Fallujah) and firing shots indiscriminately, some of which impacted positions manned by U.S. Marines," the letter said. "Your actions endangered the lives of innocent Iraqis and U.S. service members in the area."
All of the men have since resigned from Zapata Engineering, company officials said. Blanchard and Raiche said they did so because of the Marine ban on them working in Iraq.
The Zapata officials also said they did not believe the accusations that the convoy had fired on U.S. forces.
"The fact that all of the company's security personnel in Iraq are Americans leads us to believe that the root cause of the events was a misunderstanding by people who are living and working in an intense and stressful situation," Manuel Zapata, the president of the company, said in a statement.
Of the 16 Zapata employees, 14 were security guards while two were employees working on Zapata's contract to detonate Iraqi munitions.
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