Justice Dept. to appeal Blackwater ruling

By Ernesto Londoño

Saturday, January 23, 2010; 4:00 PM

BAGHDAD -- The Justice Department will appeal the dismissal of an indictment against five Blackwater Worldwide guards charged in the 2007 fatal shooting of 14 Iraqis, 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 that overturning U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina's 90-page ruling is a long shot because he made very specific factual findings about errors 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," in order to reinstate the indictment -- a threshold lawyers call implausible in this case.

"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 changed its name to Xe Services after the ensuing deluge of negative publicity -- opened fire in a crowded square on Sept. 16, 2007, while protecting U.S. diplomats. The Dec. 31 dismissal of the indictment enraged Iraqis.

Biden's overnight trip to Baghdad coincided with a simmering controversy over the dismissal of more than 500 candidates from the upcoming parliamentary election. Disappointing barred candidates who had hoped the vice president would weigh in on their behalf, Biden 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 of candidates for alleged loyalty to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. "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, which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki backs, has triggered protests from Sunnis and secular candidates who call it a politically motivated witch hunt that has disproportionately targeted secular candidates and prominent Sunnis.

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.

Maliki on Saturday defended the work of the committee that vetted the candidates -- which is run by Shiite candidates who remain on the ballot -- saying, "No one particular group was targeted."

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

"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 private talks, said 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 an additional 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.