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Four Hired Guns in an Armored Truck, Bullets Flying, and a Pickup and a Taxi Brought to a Halt. Who Did the Shooting and Why?

(Courtesy Isireli Naucukidi - Courtesy Isireli Naucukidi)

Naucukidi also said that Schmidt was responsible for an earlier shooting incident that afternoon involving a white civilian truck, and that he believed Schmidt and Sheppard had blamed Washbourne to cover up their own potential culpability. Schmidt denied responsibility for that shooting but acknowledged in an interview he had fired a warning shot into the grille of a car on a separate airport run that morning and had failed to report it.

Naucukidi left Triple Canopy on his own shortly after the incidents occurred. Company officials said he was not fired because, unlike the three other guards, he had reported the shootings immediately. During an interview on the Fijian island of Ovalau, where he farms, Naucukidi said he decided not to return to Triple Canopy because "I couldn't stand what was happening. It seemed like every day they were covering something" up.

The presence of heavily armed guards on the battlefield has long been a wild card in the Iraq war. Insurgents frequently attack them. Iraqi civilians have expressed fear of their sometimes heavy-handed tactics, which have included running vehicles off the road and firing indiscriminately to ward off attacks.

Current and former Triple Canopy employees said they policed themselves in Iraq under an informal system they frequently referred to as "big boy rules."

"We never knew if we fell under military law, American law, Iraqi law, or whatever," Sheppard said. "We were always told, from the very beginning, if for some reason something happened and the Iraqis were trying to prosecute us, they would put you in the back of a car and sneak you out of the country in the middle of the night."

Naucukidi said the American contractors had their own motto: "What happens here today, stays here today."

June 2: Hilla

Washbourne sported a shaved head, a goatee and a mosaic of tattoos and piercings on his muscular, 6-foot-3-inch frame. He led one of two teams on Triple Canopy's "Milwaukee" project, a contract to protect executives of KBR Inc., a Halliburton subsidiary, on Iraq's dangerous roads. He earned $600 a day commanding a small unit of guards armed with M-4 rifles and 9mm pistols, the same caliber weapons used by U.S. troops.

The men referred to each other by their radio call signs. Washbourne was "JW," his initials. Sheppard, a former U.S. Army Ranger, was "Shrek," for his resemblance to the cartoon monster. Schmidt, a former Marine sniper, was "Happy," an ironic reference to his surly demeanor. Naucukidi was "Isi," an abbreviation of his first name.

Schmidt and Sheppard earned $500 a day. Naucukidi earned $70 a day for the same work.

One of the largest security firms in Iraq, Triple Canopy was known for its elite, disciplined guards, including many Special Operations veterans from all branches of service. The company provides security at some checkpoints inside Baghdad's Green Zone. But Triple Canopy officials said the company is not responsible for protecting the Iraqi parliament building, where a bomb Thursday killed at least one person and wounded at least 20.

On the Milwaukee project, Washbourne came to symbolize a lack of discipline that was a departure from the company's approach, according to several current and former employees.

Unlike the U.S. military, which prohibits drinking, Triple Canopy employees ran their own bar, called the Gem, inside the Green Zone. Washbourne sometimes drank so heavily his subordinates had to roust him for his own operations briefings, four current and former employees said. Washbourne said he drank, but seldom to excess.

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