WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors have sent target letters to six Blackwater Worldwide security guards involved in a September shooting that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, indicating a high likelihood the Justice Department will seek to indict at least some of the men, according to three sources close to the case.
The guards, all former U.S. military personnel, were working as security contractors for the State Department, assigned to protect U.S. diplomats and other nonmilitary officials in Iraq. The shooting occurred when their convoy arrived at a busy square in central Baghdad and guards tried to stop traffic.
An Iraqi government investigation concluded that the contractors fired without provocation. Blackwater has said its personnel acted in self-defense.
The sources said that any charges against the guards would likely be brought under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which has previously been used only to prosecute cases referred to the Justice Department by the Defense Department for crimes committed by military personnel and contractors overseas. Legal experts have questioned whether contractors working for the State Department can be prosecuted under its provisions.
The sources cautioned that prosecutors are still weighing evidence gathered in a 10-month investigation that began shortly after the shootings. A federal grand jury has heard testimony from about three dozen witnesses since November, including U.S. and Blackwater officials and Iraqis, according to two of the sources.
Target letters, often considered a prelude to indictment, offer suspects the opportunity to contest evidence brought before the grand jury and give their own version of events. The letters were sent this summer, although the sources, who agreed to discuss the case only on the condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity, said a final decision on whether to indict may not be made until October, nearly a year after the incident.
The U.S. attorney's office in Washington and the Justice Department's National Security Division are leading the investigation. Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment, as did Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd. A spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office, which investigated the shooting on the ground in Iraq in the weeks after the incident, also declined to comment.
Anne Tyrell, a spokeswoman for North Carolina-based Blackwater, said that the company believes the guards fired their weapons "in response to a hostile threat" and is monitoring the investigation closely.
"If it is determined that an individual acted improperly, Blackwater would support holding that person accountable," Tyrell said in a statement. "But at this stage, without being able to review evidence collected in an ongoing investigation, we will not prejudge the actions of any individual. The company is cooperating fully with ongoing investigations and believes that accountability is important."
Lawyers for the Blackwater guards have argued in ongoing discussions with prosecutors that Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, known as MEJA, can be applied only to contractors working for the Defense Department, two sources said.
Some outside legal experts said that prosecutors would be able to make a compelling argument that MEJA covers Blackwater guards.
"You are dealing with a military environment," said David Silliman, a law professor at Duke University who specializes in national security matters. "If the contractors were not there, those State Department folks would be guarded by the military. Prosecutors could argue to the judge that those facts fit within the definition of furthering the [Defense Department] mission in Iraq."
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