Blackwater Drama Unfolds on 2 Cross-Country Stages

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Associated Press

Blackwater Drama Unfolds on 2 Cross-Country Stages

by
Matt Apuzzo and Lara Jakes Jordan

A bullet hole is seen on a traffic light pole at al-Nisoor square in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008. At this square, more than a year ago, Blackwater Worldwide security guards shot dead 17 Iraqi civilians. The US Justice Department has indicted five Blackwater Worldwide security guards and is negotiating a plea deal with a sixth, according to people close to the case.The six guards have been under investigation since a convoy of heavily armed Blackwater contractors opened fire in a crowded Baghdad intersection on Sept. 16, 2007. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

WASHINGTON - The legal drama surrounding five Blackwater
Worldwide security contractors charged with killing Iraqi civilians was
unfolding Monday on two stages thousands of miles apart.

In
Washington, the Justice Department planned to make public the
manslaughter indictment it obtained last week. And in Utah, the five
guards were to surrender and question the legitimacy of the
government's case.

They will be the first public events in an FBI
investigation that has been carried out in secrecy since the September
2007 shooting, which left 17 Iraqis dead and strained U.S. relations
with Iraq.

The five guards face charges including manslaughter
and using a machine gun in a crime of violence. The latter falls under
a law that passed during the height of the crack epidemic. It carries a
mandatory 30-year prison term.

A sixth guard struck a plea deal
in Washington to avoid that lengthy sentence, people close to the case
have said. Details of the deal remain sealed in Washington but could be
made public Monday.

Though the case has already been assigned to
U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina in Washington, defense attorneys
plan to argue that there's no reason for the case to be tried here.
None of the guards live in the Washington area and the shooting
occurred overseas.

Utah is a much more conservative, pro-gun
venue than Washington. It's a long-shot legal strategy, but it
underscores just how contentious the court fight will be, long before
the case ever gets to trial.

Steven McCool, a lawyer for
Blackwater guard and former Marine Donald Ball, confirmed Sunday that
his client would surrender in Utah. Ball is from West Valley, Utah.

"Donald
Ball committed no crime," McCool said. "We are confident that any jury
will see this for what it is: a politically motivated prosecution to
appease the Iraqi government."

The other guards indicted are
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.

Based in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater is the largest
security contractor in Iraq and provides heavily armed guards to
protect U.S. diplomats. Since last year's shooting, the company has
been a flash point in the debate over how heavily the U.S. relies on
contractors in war zones.

The shooting erupted when a Blackwater
convoy, responding to a car bombing, entered Baghdad's crowded Nisoor
Square. Blackwater says its guards were ambushed in the square,
touching off a firefight, but witnesses said the shooting was
unprovoked.

Young children were among the victims, and enraged
Iraqis have been calling for charges against the Blackwater guards ever
since. Blackwater also became the theme of violent, anti-American
insurgent propaganda.

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