Saturday, December 6, 2008

WASHINGTON - The five Blackwater Worldwide guards indicted for a deadly 2007 Baghdad shooting are all decorated military veterans who have served in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots.

According to lawyers for the guards, the men are: Donald Ball, a former Marine from 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 men are charged following the shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians in a busy Baghdad intersection. Documents in the case remain sealed but are expected to become public Monday, when the men have been ordered to surrender.

“These are indictments that never should have been brought,” Mark Hulkower, a lawyer for Slough, said Saturday. “Paul Slough has served his country honorably for many years and has done nothing wrong. I look forward to clearing his name.”

The character of the five men will be a critical part of the case. Prosecutors are expected to describe the men as trigger-happy security guards who opened fire unprovoked. Defense lawyers will describe the men as honorable veterans who, after completing their military service, joined Blackwater to protect U.S. diplomats overseas.

Young children were among the victims of the shooting, which strained relations between the U.S. and Iraq. Following the shooting, Blackwater became the subject of congressional hearings in Washington and insurgent propaganda videos in Iraq.

“We strongly disagree with the Department of Justice’s decision to bring charges against Dustin Heard,” attorney David Schertler said Saturday. Schertler said blame for the civilian casualties lies not with the Blackwater guards but with insurgents who have made downtown Baghdad a battlefield.

“Blackwater security guards were defending themselves and their comrades who were being shot at and receiving fire from Iraqis they believed to be enemy insurgents,” he said.

An Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said Baghdad welcomed any attempt to “hold the criminals accountable for their crime.”

The Iraqi government, he said, has retained a law firm to pursue compensation for the families of the victims. Some Iraqis said they were pleased by the latest developments in the case.

“I think it is a move in the right direction to make the security company employees realize that they are no longer above the law and they should stop behaving like cowboys on the streets of Baghdad,” said Mohammed Latif, 52, a retired police officer in Baghdad.

The Justice Department obtained the indictment late Thursday and got it sealed. A sixth guard who has been under investigation in the case was negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors. Documents related to those negotiations were also under seal.

Lawyers braced for an indictment on assault and manslaughter charges. But the most serious charge being considered involved a 1988 law, passed at the height of the crack epidemic, that requires 30-year mandatory sentences for using machine guns to commit violent crimes.

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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