The U.S. Justice Department has charged five American security contractors with killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounding 20 others. The five men worked for the U.S. security company Blackwater Worldwide and are charged with manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and weapons offenses.
The charges are in connection with a September 2007 incident in a Baghdad square when the contractors allegedly opened fire on civilians with automatic weapons, grenade launchers and a sniper rifle.
A sixth Blackwater security guard involved in the shooting has pleaded guilty in the case.
"Today's indictment and guilty plea should serve as a reminder that those who engage in unprovoked and illegal attacks on civilians, whether during times of conflict or times of peace, will be held accountable," said Patrick Rowan, the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for national security.
Blackwater says the security guards came under fire while protecting a U.S. State Department convoy and were acting in self-defense.
However Jeffrey Taylor, the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, says the Iraqis killed in the incident were civilians.
"None of the victims of this shooting was armed. None of them was an insurgent," he said. "Many were shot while inside civilian vehicles that were attempting to flee from the convoy. One victim was shot in the chest while standing in the street with his hands up. Another was injured from a grenade fired into a nearby girls' school."
The shootings caused an uproar and strained relations between Baghdad and Washington.
The incident prompted Iraqi officials to demand the ability to prosecute U.S. security contractors and Iraq won that right in a security pact with the U.S. that goes into effect next month.
FBI official Joseph Persichini calls the events shocking and a violation of basic human rights.
"The individuals charged today displayed a blatant disregard for the core values of the United States Constitution and failed to adhere to the rule of law and the respect for human life," he said. "These individuals must be held accountable for their actions, not just for the integrity of the American people, but for the Iraqi men, women and children whose lives have been destroyed."
The five defendants have turned themselves in to authorities and defense lawyers say the men are innocent.
Blackwater is the largest security contractor in Iraq and provides armed guards for diplomats.
The company itself was not charged in the case.