WASHINGTON — U.S. Marines forcibly detained a team of security guards working for an American engineering firm in Iraq after reportedly witnessing the contractors fire at U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians from an armed convoy, the military said Tuesday.
After three days of detention in jail cells at a U.S. military base in Iraq, 19 employees of North Carolina-based Zapata Engineering, including 16 Americans, were released last week.
All have resigned from the company and are returning home, U.S. and company officials said.
The employees have said that the incident in Fallouja last month was a case of mistaken identity. Several have accused the Marines of verbally and physically abusing them while they were in custody.
A Marine Corps spokesman denied that any abuse had taken place and said an investigation was continuing. No Iraqis or Americans were injured in the incident that prompted the arrests.
"The Americans were segregated from the rest of the detainee population and, like all security detainees, were treated humanely and respectfully," Lt. Col. David Lapan said Tuesday in an e-mail confirming the incident.
This is believed to be the first time that the U.S. military has detained private security personnel in Iraq for allegedly putting American troops and Iraqi civilians at risk. By some estimates, there are as many as 20,000 such workers in Iraq protecting American civilians and U.S. and Iraqi government officials.
The incident has reignited debate about the accountability of security contractors in Iraq, where they operate in a legal gray zone. Contracting experts said it was unclear what authority the U.S. military would have to detain American civilians in Iraq.
"Two years into the [Iraq war], and there's still a hole when it comes to a legal structure," said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written extensively on private military contractors.
"Where in the chain of command do [contractors] fit? Where is the accountability? If something bad happens, who investigates it, who prosecutes, and who punishes?" he asked.
The incident has also raised new questions about the treatment of captives by U.S. military forces. Several of the detained Zapata employees said that they were stripped and threatened by a snarling military dog while Marines jeered and took photos.
"I never in my career have treated anybody so inhumane," one of the contractors, Rick Blanchard, a former Florida state trooper, wrote in an e-mail message. "They treated us like insurgents, roughed us up, took photos, hazed us, called us names."
Zapata officials said they were continuing to investigate the incident, but had found no evidence that their security guards had fired at U.S. military personnel.
Instead, they said, it appeared that the guards had fired warning shots in the air when an unidentified vehicle approached the convoy as it was passing through Fallouja on a routine mission.
Zapata is one of several companies contracted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dispose of explosives in Iraq. The firm's workers operate from an isolated outpost south of Fallouja.
"Our personnel did not fire on the Marines," said Mary Richards, Zapata's senior vice president for operations. "Based on everything that we know and everything that we have collected, they followed the rules that are required when working as a contractor in Iraq."
Lapan, the Marine Corps spokesman, gave a different account of the circumstances leading up to the detention.
On May 18, he said, a Marine patrol in Fallouja reported receiving fire from a convoy of late-model trucks and sport utility vehicles. The Marines also saw gunmen in the convoy fire at civilians in the streets of Fallouja, where reconstruction was taking place.
Three hours later, a second set of Marines at an observation post reported receiving fire from vehicles matching the description of the convoy involved in the earlier incident, Lapan said.
The Marines stopped the convoy using spiked strips in the road and took 16 Americans and three Iraqi translators into custody. Of the Americans, 14 were armed security personnel, according to the Corps of Engineers.
Lapan said the vehicles and weapons, which were owned by the Corps of Engineers and loaned to the workers under the contract, were impounded as part of the investigation.
The reason the men were released remained unclear on Tuesday. Lapan did not respond to follow-up questions.
The contractors were "safely transported to their compound near Baghdad, along with representatives of the company that employed them," Lapan said.
Contractors have disputed many parts of the Marine account.
Mark Schopper, a lawyer for two of the contractors, said that his clients, both former Marines, were subjected to "physical and psychological abuse."
He said his clients told him that Marines had "slammed around" several contractors, stripped them to their underwear and placed a loaded weapon near their heads.
"How does it feel to be a big, rich contractor now?" the Marines shouted at the men, Schopper said, in an apparent reference to the large salaries security contractors can make in Iraq.
He also said that during their detention, the workers' relatives in the United States received phone calls from people with American accents threatening to kill their loved ones if they talked about the incident.
Schopper said he had contacted the FBI and his congressman, Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), about the incident.
"It was repulsive, appalling treatment," the attorney said.
Jana Crowder, the founder of a support group for the wives of American contractors in Iraq, said she had been in contact with two wives of the detained men.
She said the men were not allowed to call their families or others during their detention.