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Cutting Costs, Bending Rules, And a Trail of Broken Lives
"This thing was used by the Iraqis, mainly, to get them on base and get them in the commissaries," said Horner, one of the guards. "It worked sometimes -- s ometimes. They could flash this Italian logistics security card, and depending on how sharp the guard was decided whether they could go in."
Horner said the Iraqis were instructed to identify themselves as Egyptians to avoid arousing suspicion. He said the Iraqis and some Western contractors used the ID cards to gain admittance to the Green Zone in Baghdad; Camp Victory, near Baghdad International Airport; and Logistics Support Area Anaconda, the largest U.S. base in Iraq.
"There's no place they couldn't go," Horner said of the Iraqis. "They could have been mapping the whole damn place, and we never would have known."
Schneider acknowledged that Crescent made its own badges but said they were used only in Italian-run sectors. "We made them up, but they were recognized, so I guess you could call them official," he said. Picco said that the Italian military had authorized Crescent to make its own badges and that he had distributed them judiciously.
The badges were not fake, he said, even though Crescent guards referred to them as fake IDs.
"That's not a fact, it's just an expression," Picco said.
'You Are Going to Die'
The route scheduled for Nov. 16 was regarded as safe by the Crescent guards. They made the run almost daily, part of a long-standing contract to assist the Italian military, which was withdrawing its troops and equipment from Tallil Air Base near Nasiriyah, where Picco also operated a restaurant and a pizza joint for soldiers.
The mood at the border had been tense for months. Iraqi border police had confiscated trailers from several convoys, including Crescent's. Foord, the British guard, said that the week before, he had resisted border police officers' efforts to steal a truck, sparking a confrontation in which an Iraqi officer pointed a gun at his head. The incident closed the border for six hours, Foord said.
Crescent normally traveled with at least two or three Iraqi guards in each vehicle. The Iraqis would join the convoy at Wolf's Den, a border compound named after a Crescent employee who was killed in 2004.
On the day of the kidnapping, the Crescent team crossed the border two hours early and found just one Iraqi waiting for them. He was Wissam Hisham, an interpreter nicknamed "John Belushi" because of his resemblance to the late actor.
The rest of the Iraqi team wasn't there. "We tried to contact them, but we couldn't get through on the phones," Foord said. "That usually means that they don't want to run that day. It wasn't the first time they hadn't shown up. The team made a decision just to roll with it and hopefully hook up with the Iraqi team later." Foord said he believed the guards had become complacent about the run to Tallil, which Crescent had made hundreds of times without incident.
According to Picco, a team of Iraqi guards was in fact waiting. He first said the Iraqi team had 11 experienced members, then later said there were only seven.
"There was only one -- John Belushi," Foord said, adding that he believes the interpreter set up the ambush. "Not 11, not seven, just Belushi."
The trucks snaked past Safwan, an Iraqi border city, and continued north before approaching an overpass known as Bridge 3. The point vehicle, occupied by Cote and Joshua Munns, a 24-year-old former Marine from Redding, Calif., sent word over the radio that a police checkpoint was blocking the road.
Foord stopped his Avalanche in the middle of the highway at the rear of the halted convoy. An unmarked truck suddenly roared up beside him carrying 10 armed men. One stuck an AK-47 inside the passenger door and fired, narrowly missing him as he threw his head back, according to an 11-page account he gave military investigators after the kidnapping.
Foord said he accelerated and raced to the front of the convoy in the southbound lane while the gunmen pumped rounds into his truck with their automatic weapons.
When he reached the front of the convoy, the rest of the Crescent guards were lined up on their knees by the side of the road, Foord said. But Hisham, the interpreter, appeared to be participating in the kidnapping, according to Foord's account. Foord said Hisham accused him of shooting one of the Iraqi gunmen and screamed: "You are going to die . . . now you are going to die."
A man in civilian clothing intervened and forced Foord to his knees near the other Crescent guards -- Cote, Munns, Young, Reuben and Bert Nussbaumer, 25, an Austrian. Foord said he spotted "30-40" armed men, including at least four wearing suits who appeared to be in charge. The gunmen bound the guards with handcuffs, cloth tape and a power cord and began to load them into vehicles.
Crescent guard Salgado, a Chilean who later gave a one-page statement in fractured English, said he recognized "4 of the guys" participating in the attack as former Crescent employees.
Foord and Salgado were placed together in Salgado's GMC Yukon. Salgado said the attackers were unable to locate the keys to his truck.
"Suddenly they get a telephone call and start to move fast," Salgado's account said. As the attackers began to flee, a white pickup packed with gunmen roared up beside the two men, according to Foord's report. But it had no room for them.
"Jaime and myself appeared to have been left behind because they had lost the keys to his Yukon and had no space in any of the other vehicles," Foord said. The abductors roared off.
Several minutes later, two American Humvees approached from the south.
"I was still waiting for the bullet in the back of the head," Foord said.
The Americans cut loose Foord and Salgado and escorted the tractor-trailers back to the border. Most of the drivers that day were Pakistani. Nine drivers were seized and almost immediately released. Nineteen trailers were taken; some were recovered. Crescent sent out a team to retrieve the company's vehicles.
There has been no word about the hostages since the Jan. 3 video showing the five Crescent guards. The video opened with an image of the Koran and a map of Iraq, then the words, "The National Islamic Resistance in Iraq: The Farqan (Quran) Brigades takes responsibility for the kidnapping in Safwan, Basra."
In January, Crescent made a lump-sum payment of $3,500 -- half a month's pay -- to each of the missing men's families. The company said it has set aside three months' salary for each guard, to be paid on their release.
'This Will Never Happen Again'
After the kidnappings, Picco moved Crescent to Tallil Air Base. The company cut its staff and ran occasional security missions while waiting for news about the hostages.
On Feb. 1, U.S. military police entered Crescent's living quarters and found 143 cans of beer, illegal steroids and an assortment of weapons that private security companies are prohibited from possessing under U.S. military regulations, including seven fragmentation grenades, a Bushmaster rifle with its serial number removed and four antitank weapons known as LAW rockets, according to a memorandum the military later sent to Crescent.
A month later, the military opened shipping containers belonging to Crescent and found more banned weapons, including four .50-caliber machine guns, 2,200 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition and nine more LAWs.
The Army informed Picco and Crescent Security that the company had been banned from U.S. bases "due to blatant disregard" of the arming guidelines for U.S. and Iraqi private security companies, according to the memorandum.
Picco protested that the weapons were legal and that Crescent was being targeted for unknown reasons, possibly related to the November ambush and seizure. But on March 6, before closing Crescent down, he signed a brief statement.
"I accept full responsibility for my company's non-compliance with established guidance and understand that any future infractions will result in additional barment from this installation," the statement said. "I assure you this will never happen again."
Crescent's vehicles, including Andy Foord's bullet-pocked Avalanche, sit idle in a dirt parking lot outside Kuwait City. The company continues to maintain a Web site, still featuring its motto: "Integrity-Commitment-Success."
Tomorrow: Why they came to Iraq.
Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.