CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The head of a firm contracted to destroy ammunition in Iraq insists it is "inconceivable" his workers fired on Marines in Fallujah, given that nearly all of them have military backgrounds.
Defense officials said Thursday that American and Iraqi security guards for Zapata Engineering (search) were detained for three days by Marines after the shooting last month. Some of the contractors have complained they were abused while in custody.
"We have a military culture in this company," Manuel Zapata told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.
Zapata said he believes the only shot fired by his workers was a warning blast after they noticed a vehicle following them.
The 16 Americans and three Iraqis are believed to have been the first private security personnel detained in Iraq since the war began two years ago. No charges have been filed and the American contractors are believed to have left Iraq, the military said.
No casualties were reported from the shooting in Fallujah (search), which was once regarded as a focal point of Iraq's rampant insurgency before a U.S.-led offensive rooted out most militants in November.
A Marine combat team reported receiving small arms fire from gunmen in several trucks and SUVs last month, said spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said. He said Marines held the contractors at Camp Fallujah, just outside the city.
Lawyer Mark Schopper of Reno, Nev., said some of the contractors have alleged they were physically abused and humiliated while in custody. Schopper said he represents two of the workers, including Matt Raiche, a former Marine in his 20s from Nevada.
Schopper said Raiche told him the contractors were heckled, slammed to the ground and kneed in the backs of their necks. Raiche claimed the workers also were menaced with dogs and that, while they were blindfolded, Marines made sounds as though they were chambering rounds of ammunition, Schopper said.
When they asked for an attorney, they were told to shut up, he said.
Schopper said Raiche, who has a Marine Corps tattoo, told him he and others were heckled about being "rich contractors."
Lapan denied the abuse allegations.
"The Americans were segregated from the rest of the detainee population and like all security detainees were treated humanely and respectfully," he said.
An estimated 20,000 Americans, many of them former military personnel, are believed to be working in Iraq for contractors. More than 200 private workers have died in Iraq, including 13 employed by Moyock-based Blackwater Security Consulting (search).
Zapata said he believes the detainment was a mistake.
"The fact that all of the company's security personal in Iraq are Americans leads us to believe that the root cause of the events was a misunderstanding by people who are living and working in an intense and stressful situation," Zapata said in a statement released Thursday.
Zapata said he has sent senior executives from his company to Iraq and to Fort Bliss, Texas, where the returning contractors were being debriefed at a military-operated processing center for private workers, to investigate what happened.
Zapata Engineering contracts frequently with the Defense Department and Zapata said he was waiting for completion of the investigation before he draws conclusions about how the military treated his workers.