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Since September 2007, when Blackwater operators opened fire in a Baghdad traffic circle, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and wounding 24 more, the Justice Department has been struggling to build a criminal case. The challenge is indeed unique: Blackwater employees in Iraq are, like all other foreign contractors in the country, immune to Iraqi law. (This now stands to change under the new "Status of Forces" agreement, which strips contractors of their legal shield.) Because the Blackwater shooters were operating under a State Department contract, they also fall outside the jurisdiction of the US Code of Military Justice, which applies only to military contractors. US criminal and civil law also has yet to catch up to the reality of armed US contractors operating in conflict areas, and the few provisions that do cover such work need further clarification. In essence, the Blackwater operators who opened fire that day fell through the legal and regulatory cracks, effectively rendering them immune to charges of murder.
Well, almost. News reports indicate that the Justice Department, as early as Monday, could charge between three and six Blackwater contractors for the September 2007 shootings under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. The law calls for mandatory 30-year prison terms for the use of machine guns in violent crimes. The law was created in response to the crack epidemic of the 1980s, but can apparently be applied more broadly, or so federal prosecutors will argue.