BAGHDAD, Iraq - The U.S. Marines said an investigation was under way into allegations by 16 American and three Iraqi security contractors that they were improperly detained for three days last week in a military jail.
Some of the contractors, all employed by North Carolina-based Zapata Engineering, alleged they were physically mishandled and humiliated by the Marines.
Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said the 19 contractors were detained because they had fired on Marine positions in Fallujah on May 28.
Company President Manuel Zapata denied the allegations, saying the only shot fired by his workers was a warning blast after they noticed a vehicle following them.
The contractor vehicles were stopped with spike strips on the road, Lapan said in an e-mail.
The private security guards "were treated humanely and respectfully," Lapan said.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is investigating the incident, he said.
Lapan added that the military does not know why the security contractors fired their weapons, adding: "They were detained because their actions posed a threat to coalition forces. I would say that constitutes a serious event."
Zapata said his workers were shocked to be taken into custody by the military. "You don't expect this when you are helping the armed services," he said.
The U.S. military also reported that a soldier died of a nonbattle injury yesterday morning near Tuz, and a Marine was killed in a vehicle accident near Hit on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to defuse growing Sunni anxieties, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani promised sect leaders up to 25 seats on the committee preparing the country's new constitution.
Those positions would meet demands by Iraq's two largest Sunni groups, which had rejected a government offer of 13 seats to be added to the 55-member committee. The two organizations had threatened to boycott the process.
"We have decided to add about 20 to 25 members from Sunnis in the committee, which will draft the constitution with full rights like other members who were elected by the parliament," Talabani said while European Union officials visited Baghdad.
Until yesterday, leaders of the Sunni Muslim minority, often at odds with the Shiite Muslims in control of Iraq's government, scoffed at what they considered token efforts to include Sunnis on the committee.
Ayad al-Samaraee, assistant general secretary of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the two groups demanding more seats, called the proposal for 25 Sunni committee members a "good step," but he was waiting to see whether equal voting powers will be granted them, as Talabani promised.
"The authority that those 25 will have is an important issue," al-Samaraee said. "It would make writing the constitution acceptable."
Adnan al-Janabi, one of two Sunni Arabs on the committee, indicated that the new members would possess something short of equal authority. Al-Janabi told the Associated Press that the Sunni groups would join the 55 legislators in an expanded body whose decisions would be made by consensus. The decisions then would be referred to the 55-member committee for endorsement before going to the 275-seat National Assembly, he said.
One committee member, Shiite lawmaker Wael Abdul-Latif, had been wary of the Sunni group's demands. Yesterday he said he would accept the president's compromise, as an August deadline for writing the constitution approaches. Voters then would hold a referendum on the proposed constitution in October. "The ultimatum in the political rhetoric is unacceptable, but we have to be flexible," Abdul-Latif said.
Another flash point this week between skeptical Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated government has been the Iranian-trained Shiite militia called the Badr Organization, formerly named Badr Brigades.
This week, Talabani endorsed the Badr Organization and another militia, the Kurdish pesh merga that assisted U.S. forces in Iraq during the 2003 invasion. But Sunnis have accused the Shiite militia of assassinations and say it would be used to settle old scores against Sunnis.
In Baghdad yesterday, Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Ameri defended his group and said his fighters played a long role in fighting Saddam Hussein's regime, even before 2003. The group ended a two-day conference in a big tent in front of the headquarters of Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.