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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)

Contractors who survived the attack gave detailed accounts to Crescent officials of what happened Thursday afternoon.

As the convoy approached the checkpoint, one contractor pushed the panic button, which alerts the company and a military liaison in Baghdad to a possible emergency. Crescent contractors in two gun trucks at the rear reported small-arms fire. Crescent normally travels with one Western employee and two or three Iraqi contractors in each vehicle. An Iraqi contractor normally mans the machine gun, which is bolted to the bed of each gun truck. However, it was unclear whether the company's Iraqi contractors were present during the ambush.

The two men at the rear drove their gun trucks toward the front and saw five colleagues kneeling on the ground under a bridge, their hands bound behind them. The two contractors in the gun trucks were ordered out of their vehicles at gunpoint and forced to the ground, where their hands were then bound with flexible handcuffs.

For several minutes, the kidnappers fumbled with the keys to the gun trucks, apparently unable to match them to the vehicles, according to the witness accounts. Panicked, they sped off with five of the contractors and one gun truck, leaving the two contractors who had arrived last bound and kneeling on the road. None of the contractors was injured during the attack.

Less than 10 minutes later, a U.S. military convoy came upon the two men. The soldiers untied them and escorted the convoy back to the Kuwaiti border. Crescent immediately sent out a quick-reaction force and recovered the four remaining gun trucks.

Crescent Security Group was launched at the start of the Iraq war, initially to protect convoys belonging to its Kuwait-based parent company, Mercato del Golfo. Since then, Crescent has expanded and now handles security for a variety of contractors and subcontractors involved in Iraq.

Over the past several weeks, the company has been making almost-daily runs to Tallil Air Base to support the Italian military's withdrawal from Iraq.

The area along Iraq's border with Kuwait has become increasingly lawless, according to contractors. The hijacking of vehicles is common, and trucks and drivers are often held until security companies pay a form of ransom to get them back, contractors say. Three weeks ago, uniformed men armed with AK-47 assault rifles halted a Crescent-run convoy and hijacked five trucks and their drivers just inside Iraq.

On Friday afternoon, in the incident that Basra's governor apparently confused with the Crescent kidnapping, a shootout erupted between security contractors and Iraqi police in Zubair. A foreign security contractor was killed and a British contractor was wounded, the British military said in a statement.

Capt. Tane Dunlop, a spokesman for British forces, said British troops conducted a raid on Safwan early Friday morning to root out "individuals suspected of being involved in terrorist acts." As the troops moved on the group, they were fired upon by gunmen in a building. A firefight followed in which two gunmen were killed.

Dunlop said the raid was not linked to the kidnapping of the American security contractors.

On Friday night, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement saying that it was working closely with "coalition forces, Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government to ensure the safe return of all the hostages."

Fainaru reported from El Cerrito, Calif. A Washington Post special correspondent in Safwan contributed to this report.

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