Baghdad // There was disappointment but little real surprise in Baghdad yesterday, after a US court dismissed a case against Blackwater security guards accused of gunning down more than a dozen innocent people. Private security firms have long been hated in Iraq. Seen as reckless and cavalier with civilians' lives, they became a universally loathed symbol of the US military presence. Even those who supported the American invasion have been critical of the role played by contractors.
On Thursday, a US district judge threw out the case against five guards employed by Blackwater World, a company subsequently renamed Xe Services. The men faced a total of 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter and one count of using a machine gun to commit a crime of violence - a charge that carries a 30-year minimum sentence. The judge's dismissal was made on a legal technicality. Prosecutors had relied on statements given by the men while they were under immunity, making them inadmissible in court.
Few Iraqis seemed to expect the guards would really be held to account for what happened at a busy square in central Baghdad, in 2007, when a heavily armed Blackwater convoy escorting US government officials opened fire. As many as 17 civilians were killed. But as well as resignation about the failure of the case, there were also signs of anger in Iraq and demands the accused be extradited to face justice in an Iraqi court.
Nizarhim al Bayati, a professor at Baghdad's Mustansariya university, specialising in the study of militia groups, said: ""I had no doubts these mercenaries would be let off. If they had been convicted it would have undermined the US military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan so of course the case was dropped. "The Americans have been heavily relying on contractors to replace soldiers and, as has just been proved, these contractors can behave exactly as they please."
The Iraqi government reacted with dismay, with spokesman Ali al Dabbagh insisting the men had committed a "serious crime". He said authorities had carried out their own investigation and were considering other means to sue Blackwater. After the 2003 invasion, private guards protecting US personnel were granted immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts by the initial American-run administration of Iraq. That immunity only ended with a bilateral pact that took effect in 2009.
Gen Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, said yesterday he feared a backlash against after the dismissal, and made the unusual step of stressing that it was not American soldiers who had been involved. Lawyers representing the five men, Donald Ball, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nick Slatten and Paul Slough - all decorated military veterans - insist their clients were acting in self defence and only opened fire when they believed their convoy had come under attack.
Laith Abed Mohan, a traffic police officer working on Nisoor square on the day of the incident, said there had been no threat against them. "I was standing close to the convoy when they started shooting and there was no justification for it," he said. "They say there was gunfire and an explosion but the only shooting was done by Blackwater. Bullets were flying everywhere, I threw myself to the pavement so did everyone else but some people where hit. It was cold blooded killing. There should be a punishment for that."
Mr Mohan said he hoped the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, would personally demand of the US President, Barack Obama, that the men be extradited to Iraq for trial. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org