Five Blackwater security guards indicted in the shooting deaths last year of 17 Iraqi civilians are innocent until proven guilty, and even if convicted might be freed because of ambiguities in U.S. law. But the Justice Department is right to seek to put before a jury its allegation that the guards recklessly caused a bloodbath on Sept. 16, 2007.
The decision to prosecute the Blackwater contractors, which follows a searching investigation by the FBI, addresses a source of conflict between Iraq and the United States. But diplomatic considerations alone aren't sufficient justification for this prosecution. The weightier imperative is to prove to Iraqis and Americans that, to the extent possible under U.S. law, justice will be done.
Escorting State Department officials through downtown Baghdad, the five defendants -- and a sixth Blackwater employee who has turned state's evidence -- fired on other civilians after killing the occupants of a car that unwittingly had approached a blockade. According to prosecutors, the car "posed no threat" to the convoy, and the subsequent shootings also were unprovoked. The defendants say they acted in self-defense.
The shootings incited understandable outrage among Iraqis, compounded by the fact that the private security contractors were immune to prosecution by either the U.S. military or Iraq. The incident also led to strife between the U.S. and the Iraqi government, which has had to fend off accusations that it is a compliant client state.