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Sources: 5 Blackwater guards charged in shooting

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[December 06, 2008]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than a year after the deadly shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians, the 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 that strained U.S. diplomacy and rallied anti-American insurgents.

Prosecutors ordered the five guards to surrender Monday to the FBI, but details of where and precisely when were still being worked out Friday, according to these people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the charges remained secret.

RestaurantThe 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. Witnesses say the shooting was unprovoked, but Blackwater, hired by the State Department to guard U.S. diplomats, says its guards were ambushed by insurgents while responding to a car bombing.

Young children were among the victims and the shooting strained relations between the U.S. and Iraq. Following the shooting, Blackwater became the subject of congressional hearings in Washington and insurgent propaganda videos in Iraq.

An Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said Baghdad welcomed any attempt to "hold the criminals accountable for their crime."

The Iraqi government, he said, has retained a law firm to pursue compensation for the families of the victims.

The Justice Department obtained the indictment late Thursday and got it sealed, according to the people close to the case. The indictment could be made public as early as Monday.

The exact charges in the indictment are unclear, but prosecutors have been considering manslaughter and assault charges against the guards for weeks. The Justice Department has also considered bringing charges under a law, passed as part of a 1988 drug bill, that carries a mandatory 30-year prison sentence for using a machine gun in a crime of violence.

One of the six guards has been negotiating to reduce the charges against him in return for cooperation. If completed, such a deal could provide prosecutors with a key witness against the other five. Others in the convoy have already testified before a federal grand jury about the shooting.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined comment.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said, "We've consistently said that we do not believe the guards acted unlawfully. If it is determined they did, we would support holding them accountable."

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Regardless of the charges they bring, prosecutors will have a tough fight. The law is unclear on whether contractors can be charged in the U.S., or anywhere, for crimes committed overseas. The indictment sends the message that the Justice Department believes contractors do not operate with legal impunity in war zones.

Based at a sprawling compound in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater itself is not a target of the FBI investigation. Company officials have cooperated with the investigation.

To prosecute, authorities must argue that the guards can be charged under a law meant to cover soldiers and military contractors. Since Blackwater works for the State Department, not the military, it's unclear whether that law applies to its guards.

Further complicating the case, the State Department granted all the Blackwater guards limited immunity in exchange for their sworn statements shortly after the shooting. Prosecutors will need to show that they did not rely on those statements in building their case.

The State Department declined to comment and referred questions to the Justice Department.

[Associated Press; By LARA JAKES JORDAN and MATT APUZZO]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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