Reporting from Baghdad — Vice President Joe Biden promised Saturday that the Obama administration would appeal a U.S. court's decision to drop charges against a group of Blackwater guards involved in a shooting that left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead.
The September 2007 shootings in a busy Baghdad square enraged Iraqis, and tempers were further inflamed last month when a U.S. federal judge dismissed criminal charges against five of the former guards for the security firm now known as Xe. The judge ruled that the prosecution improperly built the case on incriminating statements the guards were forced to give to the State Department.
Biden made the promise while on a 24-hour trip to Baghdad aimed, he said, at exploring ways to enhance the U.S.-Iraqi relationship as American troops prepare to withdraw in large numbers this year.
The first of those withdrawals got underway Saturday in western Iraq's Anbar province, with the departure of the last few Marines serving in Iraq. The Marines fought in almost all the major battles in Iraq over the last seven years, but with the pacification of the former insurgent stronghold in 2007, their presence has gradually decreased.
After meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Biden said he was "disappointed" by the judge's verdict in the Blackwater case.
"The U.S. is determined to hold to account anyone who commits crimes against the Iraqi people," he told reporters. He also met with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and other leaders before leaving Saturday evening.
Biden's visit coincided with a growing political crisis over the banning of hundreds of mostly secular candidates from elections scheduled for March. But Biden sidestepped the controversy, saying his visit had been planned weeks ago and that he had not come to Baghdad to address the issue.
"This is for Iraqis, not for me," he said. "I am confident that Iraqis . . . are working for a final, just solution."
He also said he supported the clause in the Iraqi Constitution outlawing the Baath Party, which has been used to justify the disqualification of more than 500 candidates, though he did not say he supported the disqualifications.
"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," he said.
With the exception of Talabani, Iraqi government officials have thrown their support behind the move to disqualify the candidates, despite questions raised over the legality and independence of the commission that ordered them.
But U.S. officials have said they see signs that the Iraqis are looking to find a compromise to avert a crisis that could threaten the legitimacy of the elections and reignite sectarian tensions. The barred candidates can appeal to a panel of judges, but it is unlikely that the panel would have time to rule on hundreds of cases before the March 7 vote.
Times staff writer Usama Redha contributed to this report.