Troops and Contractors Come into Conflict in Iraq

Confusion over a shooting incident between U.S. Marines in Iraq and a private contracting firm has highlighted the tensions between private security contractors and the miltiary and communication and coordinatinon problems. Last month, 16 U.S. contractors were held in a detention center and allegedly roughed-up after Marines claimed the contractors fired on both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians. The contractors refute the claim.

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On a roadway in Iraq recently, US Marines confronted some of their fellow Americans. The Americans captured 16 heavily armed civilians who were supposed to be on their side. That incident opens a window into the lives of thousands of civilians doing military jobs in Iraq. They are known as private military contractors. In a moment, we'll examine the rules for these contractors or the lack of rules. First, NPR's Eric Westervelt profiles one of the 16 contractors who were detained by Marines.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Matt Raiche is a former Marine who left his firefighter job in Nevada for the world of private security contracting in Iraq. The 34-year-old has spent much of the last two years working in convoy protection in some of the most violent parts of Iraq, including the insurgent hot spots of Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad.

Mr. MATT RAICHE (Private Contractor): Some places you got mortared every night. You know, you got mortared a couple times a week. You know, you kind of got used to that kind of stuff after a while.

WESTERVELT: Raiche learned to adjust despite the physical hazards and the mental and emotional strains on him, his wife and stepson. But the money, he says, was the big motivation.

Mr. RAICHE: It was the main reason why I stayed, so I could get out of debt, pay my bills.

WESTERVELT: Working in convoy security, Raiche and his colleagues came into daily contact with US soldiers and Marines. Raiche's employer, until a few days ago, Zapata Engineering, has a contract with the US Army Corps of Engineers to destroy thousands of tons of captured enemy ammunition and explosives. Yet the relationship with the military, Raiche says, was often a rocky marriage of convenience. Raiche saw the tensions build over the months as American military personnel grew increasingly bitter about private contractors' pay and schedules.

Mr. RAICHE: Resentful that we made so much money, the fact that we could come home, you know, every 90 days. They didn't like that. But mainly they're mad about the money that we made, four or five times the amount they make.

WESTERVELT: Those tensions turned into outright hostility, Raiche says, in late May in Fallujah. Marines said a private security convoy fired on them and Iraqi civilians twice. No casualties were reported. The contractors contend they fired just a few warning shots at an Iraqi construction truck that was blocking the road. When the Zapata Engineering convoy came near the Marine base at Camp Fallujah, all 16 Americans and the three Iraqis in the convoy were put into a Marine detention center. Raiche was one of them.

Mr. RAICHE: A couple of the guys asked, `What's going on? Are we being arrested? What's going on? What's the problem? You know, we want our lawyers.' At that time, he said, `Shut the F up. Face the wall. Don't say a word.'

WESTERVELT: While in Marine custody for three days, Raiche and some of the other 15 contractors say they were abused and humiliated. One Marine derided the group as rich contractors, Raiche says, and another Marine slammed a contractor to a cement floor and crushed his testicles. Raiche says a Marine sergeant pushed him to the ground with a knee to his back while other Marines mocked him.

Mr. RAICHE: At that time, I can hear some heckling on the side. They were saying, `How's it feel to make that contractor's money now?'

WESTERVELT: The Marines deny that any contractors were abused or humiliated. A Marine spokesman says Marines reported coming under fire from a convoy of trucks and SUVs, and in a statement, the Marines say the American contractors were segregated from the rest of the detainee population and, quote, "like all security detainees were treated humanely and respectfully."

There are an estimated 15 to 20,000 American contractors working in Iraq, many of whom are heavily armed, and despite daily interaction on main supply routes, at checkpoints and on military bases, both sides complain that coordination is often spotty at best. Some US military commanders grumble that contractors frequently barrel through their areas of responsibility without making radio contact or alerting military personnel.

Contractors complain that they aren't always kept in the know about the latest intelligence on hot spots or insurgent tactics. Raiche's attorney, Mark Schopper, calls the lack of close coordination in Iraq a huge, nagging problem.

Mr. MARK SCHOPPER (Attorney): You have two separate groups. Both are heavily armed in a very tense situation and both working to achieve the same goal, so it makes no sense whatsoever that they don't have close coordination and communication. I find that troubling.

WESTERVELT: Rules of engagement for security contractors in Iraq call for a graduated escalation of force, but US and Iraqi officials complain that contractors often ignore the rules in favor of a shoot-first policy that endangers US soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

All 16 of the US contractors detained are ex-military and half are former Marines. The president of Zapata Engineering, Manuel Zapata, says, quote, "That's why we're surprised at all this. We have a military culture in this company." Zapata says he believes it was a different convoy of private contractors, not his men, who may have opened fire. He blames the dispute on the stresses and dangers of Iraq and the proverbial fog of war.

Mr. MANUEL ZAPATA (Zapata Engineering): There has been talk of another convoy that went through the same position before and exchanged fire, you know? Well, that wasn't us. There have been other encounters where fire has been exchanged with other convoys from other contractors, you know, so there is confusion there.

WESTERVELT: Neither side has filed charges against the other. The contractors have been barred from working in Iraq and most have retained lawyers. Matt Raiche says he got a lawyer to help him get out of Iraq and because his wife got threatening phone calls. He alleges an anonymous caller told his wife, `Don't make a big deal out of this or your husband might not make it home.'

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Washington.

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