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Published: Monday, 12/15/2008

Carnage in Nisoor Square

THE indictment of five private security guards in connection with the carnage at a busy Baghdad traffic circle in September, 2007, is a welcome development in a case that rightly provoked international outrage.

The U.S. government charges against the five Blackwater Worldwide guards who killed at least 17 innocent civilians in a hail of bullets and grenades should send a message that no one - even those hired to support American military missions - is above the law.

But it's unclear whether that law, based on a 2004 amendment to the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, can withstand defense scrutiny. It gave the government broad - critics say ill-defined - authority to prosecute personnel whose work directly supplements the military overseas.

The guards have always insisted they fired in self-defense when their convoy came under attack. But a sixth guard, who's already pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with the incident, reinforced U.S. and Iraqi investigations with testimony that the guards launched an assault on human targets "that posed no threat to the [Blackwater] convoy."

Prosecutors will argue that the amendment gives the government jurisdiction to file charges against the guards, who were hired by the State Department rather than the Department of Defense. The defense is likely to challenge the legality of holding private security contractors accountable for crimes committed off U.S. soil.

With any luck, the case will not be scuttled on a technicality before a jury has the opportunity to evaluate the guards' actions. What happened should be thoroughly explored, as should the monumental role security companies continue to play in the government's Iraq war strategy.

The United States has more than 140,000 troops in Iraq. Estimates of the number of security personnel range from 50,000 to 100,000. The government pretty much treated them as beyond either U.S. or Iraqi jurisdiction until the shooting in Nisoor Square.

The incident ignited such an uproar throughout Iraq that the Bush Administration ultimately agreed to a demand by the Iraqi government that starting Jan. 1, private security details will be subject to Iraqi jurisdiction in the case of crimes committed while off American bases. The current Blackwater defendants won't face trial in Iraq, but they could face significant time in U.S. prisons if convicted.

The incident, as well as the policy behind it, deserves no less than a fair and full public accounting.

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