Blackwater guards surrender over Iraq killings
Five guards from the American security firm Blackwater have surrendered to the FBI today to face charges in connection with the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in a crowded Baghdad square.
The guards are facing charges of manslaughter and using machine guns in a crime of violence. They are charged in a sealed indictment in Washington, but they surrendered at a federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah. The surrender in Salt Lake City is an apparent attempt to gain a more favourable venue for trial.
Lawyers for the five men - all war veterans - initially said they would challenge the effort to bring them to trial, claiming the government did not have the authority to charge the men, and that it was using them as scapegoats.
The shooting on September 16 2007 by guards protecting a convoy of US diplomats damaged relations between the Iraqi government and the Bush administration. Private security firms were accused of acting like trigger-happy cowboys, who opened fire with no fear of consequences.
Immunity for private security guards became a key issue in negotiations over security arrangements governing the presence of US forces in Iraq from next January. Under the recently agreed arrangement, private security firms will be subject to Iraqi law. The Iraqi government is expected to formally revoke immunity for guards protecting US diplomats in Baghdad when the agreement goes into effect in January.
"This was one of the main issues in the pact," Shatha al-Abousi, a Sunni member of parliament, told reporters. "It was a big problem, giving immunity to American soldiers and bodyguards. But everywhere on Earth, the guilty one must pay. It is a good thing this issue was completely solved in the pact."
New details about the identity of the men accused in the Nisour Square shooting emerged at the weekend. They are Paul Slough, a Texan army veteran who had served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia ; Nick Slatten, of Tennessee, who had served two tours in Iraq as an army sergeant ; Ball, who also did two tours ; Dustin Heard, a former marine with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq ; and Evan Liberty, a marine who served on embassy security details in Egypt and Guatemala. A sixth man is negotiating a plea deal.
Tom Connolly, a lawyer for Slatten, said the guards had reacted as highly trained soldiers to the events at Nisour Square.
"The indictment is an effort by bureaucrats in Washington to second-guess split-second decisions made by honourable men during a firefight in the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world," he said.
An FBI inquiry found that the Blackwater guards were the only sources of gunfire. Witnesses have said the guards shot randomly in the square. FBI agents are expected to travel to Baghdad to talk to families of the victims about the case.
Blackwater, which defended the guards before Congress, has said they were responding to a car bomb, and a possible ambush of the convoy. However, a sixth guard is expected to give evidence for the prosecution in return for lesser charges.
The case is complicated by the fact that Blackwater was not answerable to either US or Iraqi law at the time of the shooting. The prosecution is basing its case on the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which generally has been used for crimes committed by members of the US military. But it is not clear whether the law applies to civilians working for agencies other than