- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

A North Carolina company has repatriated its private security contractors, including eight former U.S. Marines, after they were accused and detained in Iraq for purportedly shooting at American troops in Fallujah.

The contractors say they were roughed up and mistreated while in the custody of U.S. forces and that they were nowhere near Fallujah when the incident took place.

“All of the Americans involved … have left Iraq,” Zapata Engineering said yesterday. “No charges were filed against them.”

The company said it was investigating the matter, including reports that its employees had been mistreated.

One detainee, a former Marine and Florida state trooper, said the incident was a case of mistaken identity, and accused U.S. forces of treating the team inhumanely during their three-day custody.

“They treated us like insurgents, roughed us up, took photos, hazed us and called us names,” Rick “Frenchie” Blanchard said in an e-mail posted to a security contractors’ e-mail list.

“My message is for you guys to be careful, something has changed on the roads and I can’t figure it out,” Mr. Blanchard wrote.

He said the 19-person team was released when they showed that they had been at the Baghdad airport — not Fallujah, which is 40 miles west of the capital — when the incident occurred.

U.S. forces said they took the security operators into custody after being fired on, in what appeared to be a number of incidents involving white SUVs — cars typically used by international contractors, but also by insurgents and other civilians.

“Nineteen employees working for a contract security firm in Iraq were temporarily detained and questioned after firing on U.S. Marine positions in the city of Fallujah on Saturday,” the Associated Press quoted Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan as saying.

“Marines also witnessed passengers in the vehicles firing at and near civilian cars on the street,” Col. Lapan said. “Three hours later, another Marine observation post was fired on by gunmen from vehicles matching the description of those involved in the earlier attack.”

Fallujah was a center of the violent Sunni insurgency until the U.S. military took control of the city in November 2004. There still are multiple attacks against coalition forces and Iraqis in Fallujah daily, one U.S. security manager said yesterday in a telephone interview from Baghdad.

Zapata Engineering said the likely cause of the events “was a misunderstanding by people who are living and working in an intense and stressful situation.”

The company said it was disturbed over accounts by its employees of their treatment in Marine detention. The U.S. military has said it treated the Zapata operators with respect.

One top U.S. security company said the incident points to the need for better regulation and oversight of the industry.

“It does indicate the need for standards, regulation [and] oversight that will make it safer for all,” said Joe Mayo of Triple Canopy, which is based near Chicago.

“Professional security companies that are registered are pushing for standards, but we are having difficulty getting traction on the Hill, with the Department of Defense or Department of State,” he said.

Lawrence Peter, the Baghdad-based director of the private Security Company Association of Iraq that liaises between the companies and the military, said in a telephone and e-mail exchange that Zapata was not a licensed private security company under current regulations.

But, he added, there were also a number of “independent actors” in Iraq who frequently took on the profile of security companies.

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