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A chaotic day on Baghdad's airport road

A Washington Post investigation into a shooting incident on Baghdad's airport road last July provides a rare look inside the world of private security contractors, the hired guns who fight a parallel and largely hidden war in Iraq.
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On the afternoon of July 8, 2006, four private security guards rolled out of Baghdad's Green Zone in an armored SUV. The team leader, Jacob C. Washbourne, rode in the front passenger seat. He seemed in a good mood. His vacation started the next day.

"I want to kill somebody today," Washbourne said, according to the three other men in the vehicle, who later recalled it as an offhand remark. Before the day was over, however, the guards had been involved in three shooting incidents. In one, Washbourne allegedly fired into the windshield of a taxi for amusement, according to interviews and statements from the three other guards.

Washbourne, a 29-year-old former Marine, denied the allegations. "They're all unfounded, unbased, and they simply did not happen," he said during an interview near his home in Broken Arrow, Okla.

The full story of what happened on Baghdad's airport road that day may never be known. But a Washington Post investigation of the incidents provides a rare look inside the world of private security contractors, the hired guns who fight a parallel and largely hidden war in Iraq. The contractors face the same dangers as the military, but many come to the war for big money, and they operate outside most of the laws that govern American forces.

The U.S. military has brought charges against dozens of soldiers and Marines in Iraq, including 64 servicemen linked to murders. Not a single case has been brought against a security contractor, and confusion is widespread among contractors and the military over what laws, if any, apply to their conduct. The Pentagon estimates that at least 20,000 security contractors work in Iraq, the size of an additional division.

Private contractors were granted immunity from the Iraqi legal process in 2004 by L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. occupation government. More recently, the military and Congress have moved to establish guidelines for prosecuting contractors under U.S. law or the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but so far the issue remains unresolved.

The only known inquiry into the July 8 incidents was conducted by Triple Canopy, a 3 1/2 -year-old company founded by retired Special Forces officers and based in Herndon. Triple Canopy employed the four guards. After the one-week probe, the company concluded that three questionable shooting incidents had occurred that day and fired Washbourne and two other employees, Shane B. Schmidt and Charles L. Sheppard III.

Lee A. Van Arsdale, Triple Canopy's chief executive officer, said the three men failed to report the shootings immediately, a violation of company policy and local Defense Department requirements for reporting incidents. He said Triple Canopy was unable to determine the circumstances behind the shootings, especially since no deaths or injuries were recorded by U.S. or Iraqi authorities.

"You have to assume that, if someone engages, he is following the rules and that he did feel a threat," Van Arsdale said, adding that conflicting accounts, delays in reporting the incidents and lack of evidence made it impossible to determine exactly what provoked the shootings. Triple Canopy officials said they have lobbied for more regulation of contractors since 2004 to better define how incidents such as the July 8 shootings are reported and investigated.

'I couldn't stand what was happening'
Many details about the shootings are in dispute. This account is based on company after-action reports and other documents, court filings, and interviews with current and former Triple Canopy employees, including all four men riding in the armored Chevrolet Suburban that day.

Schmidt and Sheppard said they were horrified by what they described as a shooting rampage by Washbourne and waited two days to come forward because they feared for their jobs and their lives. The two have sued Triple Canopy in Fairfax County Circuit Court, arguing that the company fired them for reporting a crime.

But another man in the vehicle, Fijian army veteran Isireli Naucukidi, said Sheppard, who was driving, cut off the taxi on Washbourne's orders, giving him a better shot. Naucukidi said the three American guards laughed as they sped away, the fate of the Iraqi taxi driver unknown. Schmidt told Washbourne, "Nice shot," according to 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.

An incident a month before the shootings underscored doubts among his colleagues about Washbourne's leadership, several of them said. On June 2, Washbourne was leading a convoy to a State Department compound in Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad. The Suburban in which he was a passenger jumped a curb at a high rate of speed, shattering the axles and halting the exposed SUV in the middle of the highway.

A blue civilian truck suddenly flew around a blind curve and headed toward the convoy, according to Washbourne and Naucukidi, who was riding with him that day. Washbourne fired more than a dozen rounds into the oncoming truck with his M-4, wounding the driver. He later said he felt threatened. Washbourne then insisted on torching his damaged SUV with incendiary grenades instead of having it towed.

Washbourne said he was following standard operating procedure, which calls for a vehicle to be destroyed once it is disabled to prevent it from falling into the hands of insurgents.

Naucukidi said Washbourne ordered the guards to tell investigators that the convoy had been attacked by insurgents, even though many of them believed it had merely been involved in a traffic accident. Washbourne insisted that a small explosion precipitated the incident and that the SUV had been run off the road by another vehicle.

When the team returned to Baghdad, Naucukidi said, it was met by Ryan D. Thomason, a close friend of Washbourne's who was serving as acting project manager.

"What happens here today, stays here today," Thomason said, according to Naucukidi. "Good job, boys."

Thomason instructed the team not to discuss the incident for security reasons, said his attorney, Michael E. Schwartz. Triple Canopy recently opened a separate investigation into the incident after new information about it surfaced during litigation over the July 8 shootings.

Road to the airport
The July 8 afternoon run was to be Washbourne's last before he returned to Oklahoma. The team was to travel to Baghdad International Airport to pick up a client, then return to the Green Zone.

Washbourne, as team leader, led a pre-mission briefing in the parking lot. As the briefing concluded, according to Naucukidi, Washbourne cocked his M-4 and said, "I want to kill somebody today."

Naucukidi said he asked why. He recalled that Washbourne replied: "Because I'm going on vacation tomorrow. That's a long time, buddy."

In an incident report that he later submitted to Triple Canopy, Sheppard wrote that Washbourne also informed him that he was "going to kill someone today." In an interview, Schmidt said he heard a similar remark. Washbourne denied making any comment about his hope or intention to kill that day.

Naucukidi said he didn't take the comment seriously, because Washbourne frequently made similar jokes. "He did this really every mission: 'Okay, let's go shoot somebody,' " Naucukidi said.

Washbourne sat in the front passenger seat of the "follow" vehicle -- the third Suburban in a three-truck convoy, which included a lead vehicle, filled with guards, and what they called the "limo," a Suburban used to ferry the client. Sheppard drove. Schmidt and Naucukidi sat behind them facing backward to protect against a rear attack.

The four men agree on what happened next. The convoy arrived at Checkpoint 1, just outside the airport, and set up a blocking position to allow the lead vehicle and the "limo" to proceed through the checkpoint. The contractors noticed a small white pickup truck moving up slowly behind them from a distance of about 200 yards.

At this point, the stories diverge.

Naucukidi said Sheppard moved the Suburban to give Schmidt a better view. Naucukidi said that he and Schmidt tried to warn the white truck to stop but that it was still moving forward when Schmidt fired three times with his M-4. He said the truck stopped immediately but was still too far away for the men to see where the bullets hit.

Naucukidi also said the truck was too far away and was moving too slowly to pose a threat.

Schmidt and Sheppard waited two days before coming forward, then gave nearly identical accounts of what happened. Both said that it was Washbourne who shot at the white truck and that he fired intentionally into the windshield. "His intention was to kill," said Schmidt, who claimed he saw a "splash" of glass from the bullets striking the windshield.

Schmidt and Sheppard said Washbourne warned them not to mention the incident, quoting him as saying, "That didn't happen, understand?"

Washbourne said he only recalled firing two warning shots at a much larger white truck in an incident during a different run that morning. Naucukidi said he believes Washbourne is confusing that shooting with yet another incident that had occurred at the same location a few days earlier.

"There was no comments about 'That didn't happen, you understand,' or anything," Washbourne said.

"I am not a clever or witty man; I don't say things like that," he said. "And I'm not a morbid or sadistic" person.

'A moment of shame'
The convoy continued through the checkpoint to pick up the KBR executive at the airport. It then left the airport and began the return trip.

Sheppard wrote that he observed "an Ambulance and a lot of activity" where the shooting had taken place. He and Schmidt said Washbourne threatened them again not to say anything.

Washbourne denied making any threats and said no ambulance was parked near the checkpoint. Naucukidi also said he did not see an ambulance.

The convoy continued down the airport road, called Route Irish by the military and contractors, toward the Green Zone. It reached speeds of 80 miles per hour.

Schmidt, Sheppard and Naucukidi agree that the convoy then came upon a taxi.

According to the accounts of Schmidt and Sheppard, Washbourne remarked, "I've never shot anyone with my pistol before." As the Suburban passed on the left, Washbourne pushed open the armored door, leaned out with his handgun and fired "7 or 8 rounds" into the taxi's windshield, both wrote in their statements.

Schmidt wrote: "From my position as we passed I could see the taxi had been hit in the windshield, due to the Spidering of the glass and the pace we were travelling, I could not tell if the driver had been hit, He did pull the car off the road in an erratic manner."

Sheppard said Washbourne was "laughing" as he fired.

Washbourne called their accounts "an absolute, total fabrication." He said the Suburban's high rate of speed and the wind resistance would have made the shooting "physically impossible."

"There's not an ounce of truth in it. It did not happen," Washbourne said angrily. "And as far as the statement goes where I said, 'I've never shot anyone with my pistol,' that is a lie. It was never one time said."

Naucukidi said that Washbourne fired at the taxi with his M-4 and that he ordered Sheppard to cut off the taxi beforehand. Naucukidi said Sheppard followed the order and used the Suburban to slow down the taxi and give Washbourne a better position to shoot from.

"When we were slightly ahead, JW just opened his door and started shooting the taxi from where we were sitting," Naucukidi said in an interview.

Naucukidi described the taxi driver as a 60- to 70-year-old man. He said he saw one hole in the taxi's windshield but could not tell if the driver had been hit. He said the taxi abruptly stopped.

"From my point of view, this old man, he was so innocent, because he was ahead of us with a normal speed," Naucukidi said. "He couldn't have any danger for us."

Sheppard sped away to catch up to the rest of the convoy, according to Naucukidi, who added that the three Americans were laughing and that Schmidt reached over, tapped Washbourne on the shoulder and told him, "Nice shot."

"They felt that it was so funny," Naucukidi said.

Schmidt denied that he complimented Washbourne. "No, I don't get a thrill out of killing innocent people," he said. "That was a moment of shame."

Divergent reports
When the convoy returned to the Green Zone, members of the team scattered.

Naucukidi said he immediately told his supervisor, Jona Masirewa, who served as a liaison between the Fijian contractors and the Americans, about the incidents. He said Masirewa instructed him to write up a report to use in case an investigation occurred.

Naucukidi wrote the one-page report on his laptop. It contained brief summaries of the two afternoon shootings.

Of the first incident, near the airport checkpoint, Naucukidi wrote that the white truck was approaching slowly and was 200 meters away when Schmidt opened fire: "Happy shot three (3) rounds from his M4 rifle, and the white bongo truck stopped."

In the second incident, Naucukidi wrote, the Suburban "over took one white taxi with an Iraqi single pack," or passenger. He wrote that "our team leader opened his door and fired three rounds at white taxi."

But Naucukidi said Masirewa feared losing his job and did not immediately turn over the report. "It was a difficult thing for us because we are TCNs," or third-country nationals, "and they are expats," Naucukidi said. "They are team leaders, and they make commands and reports on us. And the team leaders were always saying, 'What happens today, stays today,' and if something like that happens, the team leaders, they start covering each other up."

Masirewa, who is still employed by Triple Canopy in Iraq, did not return e-mails seeking comment.

By the time Washbourne went on vacation the following day, Schmidt and Sheppard had not reported the incidents. Schmidt said he was concerned about "catching a bullet in the head." Sheppard said he was so shaken he spent the night at another location inside the Green Zone.

But other employees did not believe that Schmidt and Sheppard feared for their safety. Rather, they said, the two men feared for their high-paying jobs and believed that Thomason, the assistant project manager, would throw his support behind Washbourne, his close friend.

On July 10, two days after the incidents on the airport run, Sheppard finally went to Asa Esslinger, another supervisor, and reported them to Triple Canopy management.

'Just a rampant day'
On July 12, back home in Oklahoma, Washbourne received a call on his cellphone from Triple Canopy's country manager, Kelvin Kai, he recalled later.

Washbourne said Kai asked him if he remembered any shooting incidents July 8. Washbourne said he told Kai that he had forgotten to file written reports. He said he rushed to his apartment from a Tulsa pizza restaurant and sent in the reports from his laptop.

Two hours later, Kai called again from Baghdad. "He said that allegations were made that it was just a rampant day, is I believe what he called it, of shooting and mayhem," Washbourne recalled. "I said, 'No, boss, you got those two reports.' "

Kai could not be reached for comment. Triple Canopy declined to make him available, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

The following day, Triple Canopy suspended Schmidt and Sheppard pending an internal investigation. No action was immediately taken against Washbourne because he was home on leave, according to the company.

"It is essential that we have your complete cooperation in reporting the facts and circumstances of all the activities not only to Triple Canopy but also to officials from DoD and KBR if necessary," wrote Tony Nicholson, a Triple Canopy vice president, in letters to Schmidt and Sheppard.

Who's responsibility?
Triple Canopy said it took statements from 30 potential witnesses for its internal probe. One week later, the three guards were informed by Raymond P. Randall, a senior vice president of Triple Canopy, that they had been fired.

"I am personally disappointed that you failed to immediately recognize the seriousness of this breach of operating procedures and its potential impact on the company's reputation," Randall wrote.

The terminations did not preclude the possibility of future investigations by the military, Randall wrote.

Van Arsdale, a retired colonel in the Army's Delta Force and a winner of the Silver Star, said Triple Canopy reported the incidents to KBR and to military officials in the Green Zone.

Triple Canopy officials said that because of the seriousness of the allegations, they expected that the military would conduct a separate investigation to determine whether further action was warranted.

Lt. Col. Michael J. Hartig, the former director of security for the Green Zone, said Triple Canopy officials approached him in his office but did not specify the allegations. "They mentioned they had a couple guys do some things that were questionable on the road, and that was pretty much it," he said.

Hartig said he informed Triple Canopy that such incidents were "out of my venue." He said he referred the company to the Joint Contracting Command for Iraq and Afghanistan, which administers contracts. "I didn't want to get involved in this because I had enough going on in my life," Hartig said. "It was like, 'Here's the point of contact. Have a nice day.' "

Two military spokespeople said they were unaware of any investigations into the shootings. Maj. David W. Small, a spokesman for the United States Central Command, which oversees Iraq, said: "This is not a Centcom issue. It's whoever was running that contract."

"We're fighting a war here," Small said.

Staff writer Tom Jackman and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.