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Blackwater Guards Indicted For Iraq Deaths

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. There's word this evening that security contractors with the firm Blackwater will face charges of manslaughter and assault. A Washington grand jury indicted at least five of the security guards involved in a 2007 shooting incident in Baghdad. Seventeen Iraqis died. The incident brought the role of these private, heavily armed security guards under intense scrutiny. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following this story, and she joins me now. Dina, what do we know now, and what is the significance of these indictments?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, sources are telling NPR that a grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted five of the men involved in that 2007 shooting, and they may actually indict a sixth man. Apparently, one of the Blackwater employees is still in plea negotiations with prosecutors, and those negotiations are expected to continue through the weekend. So, we're not quite sure what the final number is yet.

NORRIS: Dina, remind us, what happened back in the fall of 2007?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, last September 16th, a convoy of Blackwater SUVs entered a traffic circle in Baghdad, and then a short time later, shooting broke out. Now, Blackwater has said their employees began firing onto oncoming traffic in self-defense, and they said a car had rolled forward after they ordered the car to stop, and they were worried that it was a suicide car bomber. But a subsequent FBI inquiry came to the conclusion that the shooting was completely unprovoked, and as you said earlier, 17 Iraqis died in the traffic circle that day. And there was a great deal of question about whether or not anyone would be held accountable. So, there was this gray area in Iraqi law that suggested that Blackwater might have immunity from prosecution, and naturally, this became a huge battle between the U.S. and Iraqi authorities.

NORRIS: And does that explain why it took so long for the Justice Department to act and obtain these indictments?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's exactly right. I mean, the FBI went over to Iraq and actually bought some of the burned-out cars in the traffic circle from their Iraqi owners, and then shipped them back to the U.S. to analyze them and try and gather evidence. And because there was no real legal system in Iraq to take care of this kind of problem, it was unclear where the jurisdiction was. And now it looks like the Justice Department has found a way to try at least five, and maybe six, of the men who were there for both manslaughter and possibly assault.

NORRIS: So, what are the standards or, I guess you would call it the code of conduct, for contractors now operating in Iraq?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, starting January 1, 2009, the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, or SOFA - this is what they just signed last month - says that U.S. citizens who are contractors in Iraq are subject to the jurisdiction of Iraqi criminal courts and civil courts. And that was put into the agreement with Blackwater in mind.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston speaking to us. Dina, thank you very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.