Tension, Confusion Between Troops, Contractors in Iraq

Zapata Engineering security contractors and Marines on the road to Fallujah. Marines allege the contractors shot at them.
Zapata Engineering security contractors and Marines on the road to Fallujah. Marines allege the contractors shot at them. (Photos Courtesy Of Matt Raiche)
By Josh White and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 10, 2005

The feelings of helplessness began to creep in right away. The orange jumpsuit and flimsy sandals were too small, the silence eerie. Time passed slowly. Before long, Darrell Cleland knew there were exactly 197 cinder blocks in his tiny cell and 861 openings in the grate above his head.

Cleland, 28, used to escort prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a platoon sergeant in the Marine Corps. Behind bars in May in Fallujah, Iraq, his Marine Corps brothers now his guards, Cleland suddenly identified with his former captives.

"I'm sure those guys at Gitmo were thinking the same thing: How long am I going to be here?" saidCleland, of Salem, Ohio, who had left the Corps in 2002and joined Zapata Engineering, one of many security contractors working in Iraq.

Cleland and 15 other U.S. contractors were taken into custody by a Marine unit May 28, when military officials alleged that they fired at a Marine checkpoint as their convoy passed through Fallujah -- the first public accusation of that kind. It gave Cleland and his compatriots a rare glimpse of life as detainees, and the humiliation, fear and despair that come with it.

The contractors also became caught in a simmering power struggle between active-duty military personnel and the more than 20,000 well-paid private security operatives who work in Iraq. The contractors operate outside the military chain of command and are not subject to military law, which can lead to resentment from U.S. forces and confusion in the field. Contractors, many of them veterans of years in combat, complain that young U.S. troops lack their experience and judgment under pressure. Yet each group cannot carry out its mission in a hostile Iraq without the other.

The tension may have spiked on that evening a little more than a month ago, when the Marines allege that the 16 contractors, all of whom had military experience, fired wildly on civilians and U.S. observation posts. The contractors contend they were simply returning to their base and would never fire at U.S. troops.

The Marine Corps is investigating. The Zapata contractors were released but blacklisted, banished from the security field in Iraq and branded as criminals -- though none has been charged with a crime.

This account is based on interviews with eight of them. A Marine spokesman provided limited information about the incident and declined to make any of the Marines involved available for interviews pending the results of the investigation.

A Standard Mission

The convoy of four Ford F-350 pickup trucks and one armored Ford Excursion left Zapata's base outside Fallujah on May 28 with a fairly standard mission: Drop off a small amount of explosives at the massive U.S. base named Camp Victory near Baghdad International Airport and pick up a few Iraqi civilian employees. Then turn around and come back.

The men in the convoy were from across the United States, New Jersey accents mixing with Tennessee twangs. Fourteen were armed security guards, and eight were ex-Marines.

Their pre-convoy briefing included discussion of the increasing number of attacks on their route, and the frequent use of car bombs to hit such convoys.

But the first leg of their trip was fairly uneventful. Convoy members say they had arrived at Camp Victory and were grabbing lunch by 2 p.m. It was around that time, the Marines would later allege, that a convoy matching the description of the Zapata vehicles began "indiscriminately" firing at civilians. The contractors say that it never happened and that they had no hint of trouble until the drive back.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company