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US Prosecutors: Blackwater used grenades on unarmed Iraqis

WASHINGTON (AP) - Blackwater Worldwide security guards opened
machine gun fire on innocent, surrendering Iraqis and launched a
grenade into a girls' school during a gruesome Baghdad shooting
last year, prosecutors said Monday in announcing manslaughter
charges against five guards.
A sixth guard admitted in a plea deal to killing at least one
Iraqi in the 2007 shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square. Seventeen
Iraqis were killed in the assault, which roiled U.S. diplomacy with
Iraq and fueled anti-American sentiment abroad.
The five guards surrendered Monday and were due to ask a federal
judge in Utah for bail.
"None of the victims of this shooting was armed. None of them
was an insurgent," U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said. "Many were
shot while inside civilian vehicles that were attempting the flee
from the convoy. One victim was shot on the chest while standing in
the street with his hands up. Another was injured from a grenade
fired into a nearby girls' school."
In addition to being charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, the
five guards also face 20 counts of attempted manslaughter. They are
also charged with using a machine gun to commit a crime of
violence, a charge that carries a 30-year minimum sentence.
The shootings happened in a crowded square where prosecutors say
civilians were going about their lives, running errands. The
heavily armed Blackwater convoy sought to shut down the
intersection following a car bombing elsewhere in the city.
"The tragic events in Nisoor Square on Sept. 16 of last year
were shocking and a violation of basic human rights," FBI
Assistant Director Joseph Persichini said.
Witnesses said the contractors opened fire unprovoked. Women and
children were among the victims and the shooting left the square
littered with blown-out cars. Blackwater, the largest security
contractor in Iraq, says its guards were ambushed by insurgents
while responding to a car bombing.
"We think it's pure and simple a case of self-defense,"
defense attorney Paul Cassell said Monday as the guards were being
booked. "Tragically people did die."
Though the case has already been assigned to U.S. District Judge
Ricardo M. Urbina in Washington, the guards surrendered in Utah.
They want the case moved there, where they would presumably find a
more conservative jury pool and one more likely to support the Iraq
war.
The indicted guards are Donald Ball, a former Marine from West
Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville,
Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick
Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul
Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.
The sixth guard was identified as Jeremy Ridgeway, who is from
California. His sentencing in connection with his plea in the case
has not yet been scheduled.
An afternoon court hearing was scheduled on whether to release
the guards. Defense attorneys were filing court documents
challenging the Justice Department's authority to prosecute the
case. The law is murky on whether contractors can be charged in
U.S. courts for crimes committed overseas.
The shootings caused an uproar, and the fledgling Iraqi
government in Baghdad wanted Blackwater, which protects U.S. State
Department personnel, expelled from the country. It also sought the
right to prosecute the men in Iraqi courts.
"The killers must pay for their crime against innocent
civilians. Justice must be achieved so that we can have rest from
the agony we are living in," said Khalid Ibrahim, a 40-year-old
electrician who said his 78-year-old father, Ibrahim Abid, died in
the shooting. "We know that the conviction of the people behind
the shooting will not bring my father to life, but we will have
peace in our minds and hearts."
Defense attorneys accused the Justice Department of bowing to
Iraqi pressure .
"We are confident that any jury will see this for what it is: a
politically motivated prosecution to appease the Iraqi
government," said defense attorney Steven McCool, who represents
Ball.
Based in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater is the largest security
contractor in Iraq and provides heavily armed guards for diplomats.
Since last year's shooting, the company has been a flash point in
the debate over how heavily the U.S. relies on contractors in war
zones
The company itself was not charged in the case. In a lengthy
statement, Blackwater stood behind the guards and said it was
"extremely disappointed and surprised" that one of the guards had
pleaded guilty.
--
Associated Press writers Jennifer Dobner and Paul Foy in Salt
Lake City and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this
report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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