BAGHDAD - The U.S. government will appeal a court decision dismissing manslaughter charges against five Blackwater Worldwide guards involved in a deadly 2007 Baghdad shooting, Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday.
Biden's announcement after a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani shows how intense the diplomatic sensitivity surrounding the incident remains nearly three years later. A lawyer for one guard, noting word of the intended appeal came in Iraq, accused the Obama administration of political expediency and said the United States was pursuing an innocent man rather than justice.
Blackwater security contractors were guarding U.S. diplomats when they opened fire in Nisoor Square, a crowded Baghdad intersection, on Sept. 16, 2007. Seventeen people were killed, including women and children, in a shooting that inflamed anti-American sentiment in Iraq.
Biden expressed his "personal regret" for the shooting and said the Obama administration was disappointed. "A dismissal is not an acquittal," he said.
The United States rebuffed Iraqi demands for the contractors to face trial in Iraqi courts. After a lengthy probe, U.S. prosecutors charged five of the contractors with manslaughter and took a guilty plea from a sixth.
But the case fell apart when a federal trial judge in Washington, Ricardo Urbina, said in a Dec. 31 ruling that the Justice Department had mishandled evidence and violated the guards' constitutional rights. Prosecutors now face difficult odds getting an appeals court to reinstate the case.
The dismissal outraged many Iraqis, who said it showed the Americans considered themselves above the law. The Iraqi government began collecting signatures for a class-action lawsuit from victims who were wounded or lost relatives.
Lawyers for two of the Blackwater guards - Donald Ball, of West Valley City, Utah, and Dustin Heard, of Knoxville, Tenn. - sharply criticized the U.S. government's planned appeal.
Blackwater has said the guards were innocent, contending there were ambushed by insurgents. Prosecutors said the shooting was unprovoked.