- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The traffic circle at Nisoor Square in Baghdad was crowded with travelers headed to lunch or the market at noon on Sept. 16, 2007, when an armored convoy of vehicles from Blackwater Worldwide, traveling against traffic, blocked the south entrance, prosecutors say.

The convoy wasn’t supposed to be there - it had not been authorized to leave the “Green Zone,” the fortified part of the city where the U.S. Embassy is located, and it also had ignored orders from the State Department to return, according to court records unsealed Monday.

In the next few seconds, prosecutors say, an unprovoked shooting rampage took place - one that killed innocent civilians and ultimately frayed relations between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, raised serious questions about the use of contractors in war zones and led to the indictments of five security guards and the guilty plea of a sixth one, all of whom were military veterans.

The indictments named Paul A. Slough, 29, of Keller, Texas; Dustin L. Heard, 27, Maryville, Tenn.; Evan S. Liberty, 26, Rochester, N.H.; Nicholas A. Slatten, 23, of Sparta, Tenn.; and Donald W. Ball, 26, West Valley City, Utah, and charged each with manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence.

All have maintained they acted in self-defense. They could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted.

The indictment was handed up by a grand jury in Washington, though the defendants surrendered in Utah. A judge on Monday rejected a defense request to have the case heard in Utah. The defendants are scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 6 in the U.S. District Court in the District.

The sixth guard - Jeremy Ridgeway, 35, of California - pleaded guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter, signaling a strong possibility he will become a critical witness against his former comrades. No sentencing date has been set for Mr. Ridgeway, whose plea was given Friday in the District but remained sealed until Monday.

“We take no pleasure in charging individuals whose job it was to protect the men and women of our country,” said U.S. Attorney for the District Jeff Taylor. “But when individuals are alleged to have violated the law while carrying out those duties, we are duty bound to hold them accountable, as no one is above the law even when our country is engaged in war.”

The case promises to be a bitter legal fight, with prosecutors expected to challenge whether the Justice Department has jurisdiction to prosecute the guards. Defense attorneys will argue that the Justice Department only has authority to prosecute Defense Department contractors, not State Department contractors such as the Blackwater employees.

The FBI concluded that the Blackwater guards were unprovoked when firing on the crowd - a conclusion that stands in stark contrast to the position of the guards and Blackwater, which has maintained that its employees were acting in self-defense.

Justice Department officials made clear Monday that the only Blackwater employees who did anything wrong were the six guards charged. They noted that a total of 19 guards were part of the convoy in Nisoor Square.

“Most acted professionally, responsibly and honorably,” Mr. Taylor said. “Indeed, this indictment should not be read as accusation against any of those brave men and women who risk their lives as Blackwater security contractors.”

A spokeswoman for the N.C.-based Blackwater expressed “disappointment” at Mr. Ridgeway’s guilty plea. But Anne Tyrrell said: “This development does not change our support for those who maintain that they acted appropriately in response to a perceived threat.”

Prosecutors argue otherwise.

Within seconds of arriving, prosecutors say, some members of the convoy opened fire on a white Kia sedan driving toward the traffic circle. The driver, second-year medical student Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y, and the passenger, his mother, Mahassin Mohssen Kadhum Al-Khazali, were killed in a hail of machine gun fire; the Kia burst into flames after a grenade exploded under it, rupturing the fuel line.

Investigators concluded the Kia did not have any signs of a car bomb, including the fact that there was more than one person in the car and the car did not appear lopsided from being packed with explosives.

Prosecutors say the carnage that followed took a terrible toll: An Iraqi police officer standing near the Kia was fatally shot, a man standing with his hands above his head was shot in the chest, and grenades were launched into a nearby all-girls school. Seventeen unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed and about 20 others were injured. Prosecutors say none of the victims was an insurgent.


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