Abduction of Americans Reflects Fraying Security in Iraqi South

British soldiers move a roadblock in Zubair, site of a shootout between contractors and Iraqi police. Five contractors were kidnapped nearby Thursday.
British soldiers move a roadblock in Zubair, site of a shootout between contractors and Iraqi police. Five contractors were kidnapped nearby Thursday. (By Nabil Al Jurani -- Associated Press)
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 18, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 17 -- It was a routine trip, along the same stretch of highway the contractors of Crescent Security Group drove nearly every day. As their convoy neared the Iraqi police checkpoint outside the border town of Safwan on Thursday afternoon, everything seemed normal, according to accounts later provided to company officials by men who participated in the convoy.

They were escorting 43 empty tractor-trailers from Kuwait to Tallil Air Base, near the southern city of Nasiriyah. The convoy was protected by five Crescent gun trucks -- black Chevrolet Avalanches mounted with belt-fed machine guns. The convoy reached the checkpoint and stopped.

Suddenly, one of the contractors pushed the panic button, a locating device used in emergencies. About 30 gunmen converged on the convoy in at least two white Toyota Land Cruisers, one white pickup truck and one white Chevy Lumina, according to information gathered by Crescent employees and the American and British militaries. Most wore camouflage uniforms and carried AK-47 assault rifles. As many as six were dressed as civilians, Crescent sources said.

When it ended, the attackers had abducted five security contractors -- four Americans and an Austrian. Two others -- one British, one Chilean -- were left bound and kneeling by the side of the road, where they were discovered unharmed by the U.S. military.

The kidnappers also seized one of the gun trucks and 19 tractor-trailers, along with nine Pakistani, Indian and Filipino drivers, who were later released. None of the freed drivers "were hurt or harmed, " said George Picco, general manager of Crescent. "Mentally, of course, they were affected."

U.S. and British officials said Friday that the gunmen had posed as police and that the checkpoint was fake.

It was one of the boldest and largest abductions of U.S. civilians in two years, providing a window into the perils faced by thousands of security contractors in Iraq, who belong to dozens of small private armies that roam Iraq's landscape, protecting convoys and officials in what has become a multibillion-dollar industry. As of Friday night, no group had asserted responsibility for the kidnappings.

The attack occurred at the end of a week in which scores of Iraqis were kidnapped in Baghdad and elsewhere by gunmen in police uniforms, sparking public outrage and political fissures that widened the country's sectarian divide. As a whole, the violence deepened the mistrust of Iraq's police and raised questions about the Iraqi government's ability to exert control over the nation's security, a key requirement in any exit strategy for U.S. troops from Iraq.

The kidnappings near Safwan, and a gunfight in the same area involving British security contractors Friday, also underscored the growing insecurity in southern Iraq, which had long been considered peaceful and a model of control under British forces.

On Friday in small, dusty hamlets around Safwan, nestled along two main highways, British troops, with support from U.S. and Iraqi forces, scoured the countryside, hunting for the captive contractors.

Throughout the day, there were conflicting reports about the fate of the five men. The governor of Basra province, Mohammed al-Waeli, announced that two of the Americans had been freed and the Austrian killed. But a senior Iraqi police official in Zubair, a town near Safwan, and a top police official in Basra said none of the hostages had been released. They both said that the men referred to by the governor had been involved in a separate incident involving security contractors in the same area.

On Friday night, Michael McClellan, a U.S. Embassy spokesman, said he could not independently confirm that any of the captives had been freed or killed.

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