WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors have sent 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 security contractors fired without provocation. Blackwater says its personnel acted in self-defense.
The sources said 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.
These so-called target letters, often considered a prelude to indictment, offer suspects the opportunity to contest evidence brought before the grand jury and give their own versions of events. A final decision on whether to indict may not be made until October.
The U.S. attorney's office in Washington and the Justice Department's National Security Division are leading the investigation. Spokespersons for the U.S. attorney's office, the Justice Department and the FBI's Washington field office, which investigated the shooting on the ground in Iraq, declined to comment.
Anne Tyrell, a spokeswoman for North Carolina-based Blackwater, said the company believes the guards fired their weapons "in response to a hostile threat" and is monitoring the investigation closely.