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Biden to appeal Blackwater decision

The US government has said it will appeal a judge’s decision to clear five private American security guards accused of killing 14 unarmed Iraqis in 2007 while working for the notorious US firm Blackwater.

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Vice President Joe Biden made the announcement on Saturday during a 24-hour visit to Baghdad and expressed “personal regret” for the bloody violence at Nisur Square, which has become a running sore among the Iraqi population.

“Today I am announcing that the United States government will appeal this decision, our justice department will file that appeal next week,” Biden told reporters at a joint press conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

“A dismissal is not an acquittal,” he said.

Iraq welcomed Biden’s remarks with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari describing the appeal as “good news.”

“This is a very important issue for the Iraqi people and the US government responded positively to a request from the foreign ministry to appeal against the court ruling, which is very good news,” Zebari told AFP.

The five guards, who had been part of a convoy of armoured vehicles, had been charged with manslaughter of the 14 civilians and wounding 18 others in an attack using guns and grenades at the busy Baghdad square in September 2007. The company said the convoy was ambushed, while eyewitnesses said the guards fired into a crowd afterwards.

Charges against the Blackwater employees were dismissed last year, when a judge ruled US prosecutors violated the guards’ rights by using incriminating statements they had made under immunity during a State Department probe.

The ruling outraged the Baghdad government which maintains that 17 people were killed.

“The United States is determined to hold to account anyone who commits crimes against Iraqi people,” Biden added.

“While we fully respect the independence and the integrity of the US judicial system, we were disappointed with the judge’s decision to dismiss the indictment which was based on the way some evidence had been acquired.”

US federal judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed charges against the five guards on December 31 last year.

Original decision welcomed by company

The decision was welcomed by the US company, but several senators including 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain have since voiced regret at the ruling and called for a US government appeal.

The Iraqi government said this week it was considering lodging its own complaint against Blackwater, which has since been renamed Xe Services, to seek compensation for the families of the victims.

But the admissibility of such a case was immediately considered doubtful because all of the families except one have agreed damages from Xe, according to a lawyer injured in the incident.

The lawyer, Hassan Jabbar Salman, said the families of those killed were offered 100,000 dollars and those wounded received between 20,000 and 50,000 dollars from the US security firm.

Blackwater Worldwide changed its name in February 2009, following what the company said was a switch of business focus.

Critics however suggested that the rebranding was an effort to polish an image tarnished by an alleged culture of lawlessness and lack of accountability among Blackwater staff.

In December, the New York Times reported Blackwater took part Central Intelligence Agency “snatch and grab” missions to capture or kill insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The North Carolina-based firm lost its contract to provide security for US embassy diplomats in Baghdad in May 2009 after Iraqis and critics repeatedly accused it of adopting a cowboy mentality to duties in the country.

Biden, President Barack Obama’s pointman on Iraq, arrived in Baghdad late on Friday.

The main thrust of his visit was to defuse a row over the banning of hundreds of candidates from a March 7 general election over their alleged links to executed dictator Saddam Hussein.