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Horror at Fallujah -- 4 U.S. contractors die
SAVAGERY: Restive Fallujah 'just doesn't get it,' coalition chief says

Colin Freeman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Thursday, April 1, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle
Chronicle Sections

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Baghdad -- For the occupants of the two gleaming sport utility vehicles cruising down the debris-strewn dual highway that passes for Fallujah's main drag, it would have seemed like just another trip through bandit country.

Like any foreign contractors working in Iraq's trouble spots, they would adhere to the usual rules: keep your bulletproof vest on tight, the machine guns and side-arms ready, and think very carefully before pulling over -- even if you've just knocked a child off his bike.

Exactly how the convoy from Blackwater Security Consulting was stopped probably will never be clear. Some reports suggested it had made the fatal mistake of hitting the brakes when armed men blocked the path, rather than flooring the accelerator in the hope of barging through. Others suggested the occupants already had been dead from gunshots before their cars even ground to a halt.

Given what happened next, their grieving families probably hope profoundly that it was the latter. In an act of savagery shocking even by the blood-soaked standards of Iraq's worst trouble spot, the bodies of the three men and one woman inside the vehicles were beaten, burned, hacked at and then dragged through the streets of Fallujah.

In what turned into a macabre and murderous town fete, locals cheered as one corpse was attached to a car tow rope and pulled triumphantly up and down the main road, in full view of a camera crew.

But there was worse to come: as a crowning glory for the insurgent gunmen, the remains of two charred and mangled corpses were hung from a green iron bridge across the Euphrates River.

"The people of Fallujah hanged some of the bodies on the old bridge like slaughtered sheep," resident Abdul Aziz Mohammed said gleefully.

As if to underline the lack of a dignified final resting place, a man standing near the corpses held up a printed sign with a skull and crossbones. "Fallujah is the cemetery for Americans," it read.

In terms of its sheer bestial violence, the attack on the Blackwater operatives was unprecedented, even for Fallujah, and it reinforced the town's hard-won reputation as a place with an unquenchable hatred for U.S. forces and those who work for them.

The Sunni Muslim stronghold's virulent opposition to the coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein began almost a year ago, when U.S. forces unleashed a Pandora's box of anti-American hatred after shooting dead nearly 20 civilians when a protest outside a school turned violent.

Since then, no amount of carrot-or-stick polices by the U.S. Army has been able to tame the town. Deployment of combat-hardened heavy armor divisions, the "softly, softly approach'' by civil affairs units, "blood money" payments to the families of dead civilians -- all have been tried, and none has had any effect.

At a press conference in Baghdad on Wednesday night, coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt seemed close to giving up.

"Fallujah remains one of the cities in Iraq that just doesn't get it," he said. . "It is a former Baathist stronghold which profited immensely under Saddam's regime, and a small minority of the people there just don't want it to become part of the new Iraq."

Kimmitt, not a man noted for displays of sentimentality during his daily briefings, added: "Somewhere out in this world there are going to be families who are getting knocks on the door from people, telling them what happened to their loved ones. It is not pleasant to be on either side of that door, I can tell you."

Details about the victims of Wednesday's atrocity remained unclear Wednesday night, as did the purpose of their ill-fated drive through Fallujah.

Blackwater, a specialist private security firm based in Moyock, N.C., hires former U.S. special forces soldiers to protect private contractors. The company also has a contract to provide the roving armed security teams for current top U.S. official Paul Bremer - the No. 1 target on any Iraqi insurgents' hit list.

Wednesday's disaster was not the first to befall private security teams working in Iraq. Despite boasting high levels of training and expertise, their relative lack of backup can make them an easy target for insurgents.

With their main concern being protecting their clients -- or "principal" -- they are more likely to take evasive action than use their considerable military skills to fight back.

Last Sunday, a British security guard escorting several foreign engineers was killed in northern Iraq after his two-car convoy was hit in a drive-by machine gun attack. He is understood to have been working for Olive Security, a private military company run by former British Army officer Harry Legge-Bourke.

Olive, which has had up to 300 staff members working in Iraq at times, was one of the first security companies into Iraq and won a contract to guard civilian contractors working for Bechtel Corp., one of the main U.S. companies rebuilding the country.

The increased risks for business travelers willing to visit Iraq have escalated security costs in recent months. Most firms looking after them now insist that they travel at all times in a $750-a-day armored car, with a nonarmored vehicle escorting them as backup. A security guard armed with machine gun and side arm normally travels in each one.

Many private security operatives, however, are becoming increasingly concerned at the undifferentiating nature of the attacks.

"In the last few weeks there have been Christian missionaries killed, and two Finnish and two German businessmen," said one security source.

"It appears to be just random killings of any Westerner, which is a lot harder to plan for than specific targeting. It is like the Washington sniper approach -- no rhyme or reason to it whatsoever -- and that is what has put the fear of God into everybody working here."

Chronicle news services contributed to this story.

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