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UN Experts Urge Iraq, US to Pursue Blackwater Case

Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA - U.N. human rights experts called on Iraq and the United States on Thursday to ensure that the 2007 killing of at least 14 Iraqi civilians, which has been blamed on Blackwater security guards, be prosecuted.

Iraq said on Monday it would launch lawsuits in U.S. and Iraqi courts against the U.S. security firm for the Baghdad killings, rejecting a U.S. judge's decision last week to throw out the charges.

In a statement, the United Nations working group on the use of mercenaries said the case underscored the need for "credible oversight" of private security companies working for the United States and other governments in war zones.

Baghdad and Washington must cooperate to resolve the killings committed at a Baghdad traffic circle in September 2007, with "those responsible fully held accountable," it said.

The Blackwater incident highlighted the Pentagon's growing use of private forces in war zones and, for Iraqis, came to symbolize what they saw as a disregard for their lives on the part of foreign forces in the country.

Private guards protecting U.S. personnel were given immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts following the 2003 U.S. invasion.

"We respect the independence of the United States judiciary and the requirements for due process, but are very concerned that the recent decision to dismiss the case against Blackwater guards may lead to a situation where no one would be accountable for grave human rights violations," said Shaista Shameem, who chairs the U.N. group of independent experts.

The Iraqi government and victims' families felt that they had no recourse to justice, she added.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina said prosecutors had wrongly used statements the guards made to State Department investigators under threat of job loss -- thereby violating their constitutional rights.

The five guards were charged a year ago with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and one weapons violation count. The U.N. working group said 17 people had been killed and a further 20 injured.

The guards from Blackwater, which has renamed itself Xe Services, say they fired in self-defense in the incident. But witnesses and victims say the guards, escorting a heavily armed convoy of U.S. diplomats through Baghdad traffic, shot indiscriminately.

"Credible oversight and accountability of private security companies working on the behalf of the United States and other governments remain essential to avoid these alleged violations to be unpunished in future," Shameem said.

The 47-member-state U.N. Human Rights Council has asked the experts to report by September on a possible international treaty to regulate private military and security companies.

A treaty would "provide an avenue of redress to victims," Shameem said.

(Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Noah Barkin)

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