Tuesday, December 9, 2008

US Contractors Charged in Massacre

by Lara Jakes Jordan and Matt Apuzzo

WASHINGTON - Wild, unprovoked gunfire and grenades killed 14 innocent Iraqis and hurt dozens more in a 2007 Baghdad attack, prosecutors said yesterday in announcing charges with mandatory 30-year prison terms against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards.

The justice department called the shooting a shocking and devastating violation of human rights.

The harsh words echoed the outrage of Iraqis, who have waited more than a year to see how the U.S. would respond to the shooting.

The shooting by the largest U.S. security contractor in Iraq sparked international condemnation, launched congressional hearings and inspired anti-American insurgent propaganda.

The five guards - all decorated military veterans - surrendered in federal court in Utah, where one of them lives. A judge ordered them to report to a Washington, D.C., courthouse Jan. 6, where they were expected to plead not guilty.

A sixth Blackwater guard struck a deal with prosecutors, turned on his former colleagues, and pleaded guilty to killing one Iraqi and wounding another.

"None of the victims of this shooting was armed. None of them was an insurgent," U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said at a Washington news conference about the charges.

Prosecutors said the slain included young children, women, people fleeing in cars and a man whose arms were raised in surrender as he was shot in the chest.

Twenty others were wounded in Sept. 16, 2007, shootings in crowded Nisoor Square, including one injured by a grenade launched into a nearby girls' school. Another 18 Iraqis were assaulted but not wounded, prosecutors said.

Blackwater, which was not charged in the case, maintains its guards were protecting themselves from what they believed was an imminent car bomb attack.

"We think it's pure and simple a case of self-defence,'' defence attorney Paul Cassell said yesterday as the guards were being booked. "Tragically, people did die."

The five guards were charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and one count of using a machine gun to commit a crime of violence. The latter charge carries a 30-year minimum prison sentence.

The 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, Tex.

The sixth guard is Jeremy Ridgeway of California. He pleaded guilty to one count each of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and aiding and abetting. Ridgeway admitted in his plea agreement there was no threat from a white Kia sedan whose driver, a medical student, was killed.

Khalid Ibrahim, a 40-year-old electrician who said his father, Ibrahim Abid, 78, died in the shooting, welcomed the charges.

"Justice must be achieved so that we can have rest from the agony we are living in," he said in Iraq.

The Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater said it stands behind the guards despite being "extremely disappointed and surprised" that one had pleaded guilty.

© 2008 Associated Press

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