The US military said yesterday it is investigating a shooting incident near Fallujah last month that led to 19 private security contractors, including 16 Americans, being detained by Marines.
US Marines said the contractors were held for three days after firing on Iraqis and Marines in western Iraq, the military said. No casualties were caused.
Several thousand US Marines are based in Fallujah, a tense city 65km west of Baghdad that was long linked with Iraq's raging insurgency and was the scene of a major US-led offensive in November.
The circumstances surrounding last month's shootings involving 16 American security contractors and three Iraqis are unclear. They were detained May 28 after Iraqi civilians and US Marines were fired at in separate incidents over a three-hour period. US Marines released the contractors May 31.
"Nineteen employees working for a contract security firm in Iraq were temporarily detained and questioned after firing on US Marine positions in the city of Fallujah on Saturday," according to Marine Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lapan.
Lapan said in a statement that a Marine combat team reported receiving small arms fire from gunman in several late-model trucks and sport utility vehicles.
"Marines also witnessed passengers in the vehicles firing at and near civilian cars on the street," Lapan said.
"Three hours later, another Marine observation post was fired on by gunmen from vehicles matching the description of those involved in the earlier attack," Lapan said. "Marines saw passengers in the vehicles firing out the windows."
Spike strips on the road at a nearby observation post stopped the vehicles and Marines detained the contractors at a military detention facility at Camp Fallujah, just outside the city, before releasing them three days later.
The American security contractors are thought to have left Iraq, the military said. No charges have been laid pending the completion of an inquiry by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
The insecurity in Iraq has spawned a thriving private security industry comprising Iraqis and former military personnel from military forces around the world.
Many Iraqis refer to the security personnel, who speed along Iraqi highways in vehicles bristling with automatic weapons, as mercenaries, although many senior government officials use them for their own personal protection.