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.
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.