IRAQ

Blackwater guards plead not guilty in civilian deaths

Five former guards from the US private security firm Blackwater Worldwide, which works as a State Department contractor in Iraq, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to killing 14 Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others in Baghdad in 2007.

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AFP - Five former guards from US security firm Blackwater Worldwide, a State Department contractor in Iraq, Tuesday pleaded not guilty to killing 14 Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others by gunfire and grenades at a busy Baghdad intersection in 2007.

US federal judge Ricardo Urbina set a trial date for January 29, 2010 for the defendants, aged 24-29. Relations between Washington and Baghdad soured after the high-profile shooting that also caused an outrage over a perceived lack of oversight of security contractors in war zones.

The defendants were arraigned in federal court on 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and one weapons violation count.

A sixth guard had pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter for the September 16, 2007 shooting in Nisur Square.

The defendants, who were part of a Blackwater detail guarding a convoy of trucks, opened fire with automatic weapons on unarmed civilians in Baghdad.

US prosecutors said 14 civilians were killed. An Iraqi investigation found that 17 civilians were killed.

The defendants -- military veterans Evan Liberty, Donald Ball, Dustin Heard, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough -- risk sentences of 30 years to life imprisonment.

Critics have repeatedly accused Blackwater of having a cowboy mentality and a shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach when carrying out security duties in Iraq.

After the incident, the Iraqi government pressed the State Department to withdraw Blackwater from the country, but the security firm's contract was renewed in 2008.

A State Department review panel concluded in 2007 that insufficient oversight of the more than 2,500 private security firms it employs in Iraq to protect diplomats and guard facilities had "undermined confidence" in those contractors, both among Iraqis and US military commanders.

Iraqi authorities have indicated they may seek to bring the Blackwater guards to trial in Iraq.

Under a recently concluded Status of Forces Agreement with the United States, Iraq obtained a key concession to lift immunity to Iraqi law previously enjoyed by American security contractors.
 

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