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Sun 14 Dec 2008 08:07 AM

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US prosecutors in Baghdad to meet Blackwater victims

Prosecutors meet victims in case of guards charged with shooting civilians.

Three US federal prosecutors on Saturday in Baghdad met families of Iraqi victims in the case of Blackwater security guards charged with killing 14 civilians.

"The purpose of today's meeting with each of the Iraqi victims is to explain the charges that have been found in the United States and to answer their questions," prosecutor Ken Cole told journalists.

With him were two colleagues, John Malis and Barry Jones, and Iraq's national police chief General Hussein Jassem al-Awadi, while around 30 victims or victims' relatives from the September 2007 shootings in Baghdad were also present.

"Our investigations into the September 16, 2007 shooting... confirmed that at least 14 individuals were killed, at least another 20 wounded and injured, and at least 18 were shot at but not injured," Cole said.

He said the case against six Blackwater guards in the United States, where the trial is being held, comprises 15 charges of voluntary homicide and 20 of attempted murder.

The accused risk terms of at least 30 years in jail or life imprisonment.

"We hope they will be found guilty and that they will be punished because they are assassins who fired as if they it was a video game," 41 year-old Farik Walid, who was shot in the hand, told newswire AFP.

Most Iraqi people at the meeting asked for compensation. "The prosecutors said American justice will reach a decision but it will take a long time. For the moment, they made no promise of compensation," said Ali Khalaf, a traffic policeman who was in the square at the time of the incident.

"We are expecting compensation from our enemies but they have given us nothing," according to Muhammad Wazah, 22, who was shot in the left shoulder.

He said the prosecutors asked the Iraqis at the meeting "to come and give evidence in the United States in two or three months".

On Dec. 9, five guards from the US security firm Blackwater Worldwide, a State Department contractor in Iraq, were charged with killing the 14 civilians and wounding 18 others using gunfire and grenades in Baghdad.

A sixth guard pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter. The accused are set to face an arraignment hearing in Washington on Jan. 6.

Critics have repeatedly accused Blackwater of having a cowboy mentality and a shoot first, ask questions later approach when carrying out security duties in Iraq.

According to the indictment, the accused were part of a Blackwater detail guarding a convoy of trucks when they opened fire with automatic weapons on unarmed civilians in a busy Baghdad square.

Blackwater has insisted its personnel were acting in self-defence.

After the incident, the Iraqi government pressed the State Department to withdraw Blackwater from the country, but the security firm's contract was renewed earlier this year.

An Iraqi investigation said 17 civilians were killed.

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