Sunday, January 24, 2010

Biden Says U.S. Will Appeal Blackwater Case Dismissal


The New York Times


January 24, 2010

Biden Says U.S. Will Appeal Blackwater Case Dismissal


BAGHDAD — Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. promised Iraqi leaders on Saturday that the United States would appeal the dismissal of manslaughter charges against five Blackwater Worldwide security contractors involved in a deadly shooting here that has inflamed anti-American tensions.

Mr. Biden, tasked by the Obama administration to oversee policy in Iraq, made the statement after a day of meetings with Iraqi leaders that dealt, in part, with a political crisis that has erupted over the March 7 parliamentary elections. American officials view the vote, a barometer of the durability of Iraq’s political system, as a crucial date in American plans to withdraw tens of thousands of combat troops from Iraq by the end of August.


The vice president expressed his “personal regret” for the Blackwater shooting in 2007, in which contractors guarding American diplomats opened fire in a crowded Baghdad traffic circle, killing 17 people, including women and children.

“A dismissal is not an acquittal,” he said after meeting President Jalal Talabani.


Investigators had concluded that the guards fired indiscriminately on unarmed civilians in an unprovoked and unjustified attack. The guards contended that they had been ambushed by insurgents and fired in self-defense.


In December, in a decision that was a blow to the Justice Department and unleashed anger and disbelief in Iraq, a federal judge threw out the five guards’ indictment on manslaughter charges, citing misuse of their statements that violated their constitutional rights. The judge’s scathing and detailed ruling was expected to make any appeal difficult.


“This is great news,” Abdel-Amir Jihan, who was wounded in the shooting, said after hearing of Mr. Biden’s announcement. “The court was not fair to us. We felt great injustice when we heard the verdict. It was not right to drop the charges against them.”


Mr. Biden was scheduled to leave Saturday evening after a 24-hour visit that involved meetings with most of the pivotal players in the election crisis. That dispute erupted this month after a government commission barred more than 500 candidates, accusing them of supporting Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. While some leaders have insisted that the disqualifications adhered to Iraqi law, many Sunni Muslims have seen them as score-settling by religious Shiite parties who suffered under Baath Party rule, and American officials have worried that the move could impair the vote’s legitimacy.

American officials have warned Iraqi leaders to avoid a process that, in the words of Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Antony J. Blinken, “lacks transparency and fairness and credibility.” But as expected, there was no breakthrough in the meetings, and Mr. Biden, who spent the day shuttling between meetings, stressed that the United States would not impose a solution.


“I want to make clear I am not here to resolve that issue,” he said. “I am confident that Iraq’s leaders are seized with this issue and are working for a final, just solution.”


Before his meeting with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, though, Mr. Biden alluded to how frequently American mediation — especially his own, over the course of three trips here since he became vice president — has been necessary. He jokingly told Mr. Maliki: “I’ve come to apply for citizenship. I’ve been here enough.”


The crisis has proved intractable in part because of its very nature: a legal process with obvious and sweeping political effects, seized on by Iraqi leaders with competing interests.


In Mr. Biden’s meeting with Mr. Maliki, officials said, the prime minister insisted that the disqualifications were simply a legal issue. But Mr. Maliki’s critics have accused him of politicizing the issue as much as anyone, and in a speech on Friday, he took an especially hard line, saying that the barring of candidates in itself did not go far enough.


And while many of the most senior Iraqi officials have warned the United States against interference in Iraq’s affairs, others — especially many of the Sunni politicians who were barred from running — have sought American intervention.

American officials have said that, despite the current political crisis, they do not foresee any delay in this August’s withdrawal of the main body of American combat troops.


A notable step in that process happened Saturday when the Marine Corps handed over security duties in Anbar Province, once a cradle of the insurgency, to United States Army soldiers. The move formally ended the seven-year-long Marine presence in Iraq, in effect signaling the end of heavy combat operations.


As many as 25,000 Marines were once in the country, and the remaining few thousand are expected to leave within weeks.



Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


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