BAGHDAD - Iraqis wounded by gunfire in a Baghdad square 15 months ago are awaiting with guarded hopes the beginning of court proceedings against five former private Blackwater Worldwide security guards.
The five men are to appear in a federal court in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday for an initial hearing on charges of manslaughter in the chaotic few minutes of shooting on Sept. 16, 2007 that killed 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded dozens more.
The defendants, who are expected to plead not guilty, contend they opened fire after coming under attack when a car in a State Department convoy they were escorting broke down. But people wounded in the outburst say the shooting was unprovoked.
"It all started when they began shooting without any cause," Samir Hobi, a taxi driver who was sitting in his car at the scene.
"Then the Blackwater vehicles came up on the wrong side and pushed my car away," said Hobi, who suffered a broken leg.
The North Carolina-based Blackwater is the largest contractor providing security in Iraq. Most of its work for the State Department is in protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq - a job the agency is unable to handle on its own.
Many Iraqis saw the bloodshed in Nisoor Square as a demonstration of American brutality and arrogance and suspected the guards would never be called to account.
"I did not expect a trial to take place. I was really surprised and very happy to hear about the trial," said Farid Walid Hassoun, who was shot in the back as he cowered behind a concrete barrier.
"It never occurred to me that such a thing could happen," taxi driver Baraa Sadoun Ismael, another of the wounded, said of the trial. "Now I believe that justice does exist."
However, Ismael, like some of the other victims who spoke to The Associated Press, expressed disappointment that the guards would not face execution if convicted. The maximum sentence would be 30 years.
Kamil Amind, a director of the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry, also said the trial should have been held in Iraq. "It is a sovereignty issue. However, the trial in America represents the minimum level we can accept."
"The important thing for our ministry is to see that those who violated human rights take their punishment and that they should not escape from it," he said.
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A sixth Blackwater guard struck a deal with prosecutors, turned on his former colleagues, and pleaded guilty to killing one Iraqi and wounding another.
But the case is far from open and shut. Blackwater radio logs made available to the AP in Washington last month cast doubt on prosecutors' claims that the guards' shooting was unprovoked. The log transcripts describe a hectic eight minutes in which the guards repeatedly reported incoming gunfire from insurgents and Iraqi police.
"Unless these guys are lying to their command watch in real time, making up stuff, that's real-time reporting that they were taking small arms fire," attorney Thomas Connolly, who represents one of the indicted guards, said in December.
The defense also is expected to argue that prosecutors used a law that covers soldiers and military contractors but not civilian contractors who work for the State Department.
Such arguments could seem obscure and inhumane to the victims.
"I don't know much about the American law system, but I want them to get the harshest punishment," said Hobi, the taxi driver whose leg was broken when his taxi was rammed by a Blackwater vehicle in the melee.
If convictions come, they could mollify the victims but not erase their memories of a horrific few minutes or the lingering physical pains
"They were shooting in the same way as my son does when he plays his video game, killing without remorse, without stopping," Hassoun said. "I lost the hearing in my right ear ... especially when I stand in a crowded area I hear only whistling, which annoys me very much."
Since that day, "I have visited many psychiatrists," said Hobi. "I have difficulty getting myself to sleep. If I sleep, I have nightmares reminding me of that incident."
Associated Press staff in Baghdad contributed to this report.