Justice Department to appeal dismissal of Blackwater indictment, Biden says

By Ernesto Londoño
Sunday, January 24, 2010

BAGHDAD -- The Justice Department will appeal the dismissal of an indictment against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards accused of fatally shooting 14 Iraqis in September 2007, Vice President Biden told Iraqi officials Saturday.

"While we fully respect the independence and integrity of the U.S. judicial system, we were disappointed by the judge's decision to dismiss the indictment," Biden said after meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Legal experts say getting U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina's ruling overturned is a long shot because his 90-page opinion clearly detailed errors made by investigators and prosecutors who worked on the case.

Under the law, the appellate court would have to find that Urbina's findings were "clearly erroneous" to reinstate the indictment -- a turn of events considered unlikely.

"By announcing this decision in Iraq, through an elected official, the United States makes clear that it has decided to do what is politically expedient, rather than what is just based on Judge Urbina's unshakeable findings of prosecutorial misconduct and egregious violations," Steven McCool, an attorney for Donald Ball, one of the guards, said in a statement.

A team of guards employed by Blackwater -- which has since changed its name to Xe Services -- opened fire in a crowded square on Sept. 16, 2007, while protecting U.S. diplomats. The dismissal of the indictment Dec. 31 enraged Iraqis.

Biden's overnight trip to Baghdad coincided with a simmering controversy over the dismissal of more than 500 candidates from upcoming parliamentary elections for alleged loyalty to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The barred candidates -- the most prominent of whom are Sunni Arabs -- had hoped that Biden would weigh in on their behalf, but he was circumspect in his public remarks on the row.

"Iraqi leaders understand that if the Iraqi people and the international community see the process as fair and transparent, it will enhance the credibility of the elections," Biden said in reference to the disbarment. "Let me also be clear: The United States condemns the crimes of the previous regime, and we fully support Iraq's constitutional ban on the return to power of Saddam's Baath Party."

The dismissal of 511 candidates has triggered protests from Sunnis and secular candidates, who call the move a politically motivated witch hunt.

Because the purge has the potential to reignite sectarian violence and delegitimize the March 7 elections, U.S. officials have been quietly pressing for a compromise.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defended the work of the committee that vetted the candidates, saying, "No one particular group was targeted." The panel is run by Shiite candidates, who remain on the ballot.

However, senior Iraqi officials convened for a rare evening meeting Saturday to discuss the matter.

"They do have an outline about how to resolve the issue," a U.S. official briefed on the talks said Saturday night.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks, said the Iraqis are contemplating leaving the barred candidates on the ballot and giving them 30 days to appeal their disbarment. Judges reviewing the appeals would have a month to issue rulings.

"They're trying to work out a process to allow the candidates to run and then resolve the issue after the election," the official said.

Iraqi officials said Biden had urged that course of action in phone calls days after the list of banned names appeared.

Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and staff writer Del Quentin Wilber in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company