Iraq outraged as Blackwater case is dropped

Saying it was "astonished" by a US court's decision to drop manslaughter charges against private security guards who were accused of killing 17 civilians caught up in a Baghdad traffic jam, the Iraqi government yesterday promised to continue its battle to secure justice for the victims of "people who like to shoot unarmed people".

Wejdan Mikhail, the country's Human Rights Minister, said she would now support efforts to bring civil charges against the Blackwater employees accused of firing automatic weapons and throwing hand grenades at cars negotiating a roundabout in Nisur Square just over two years ago.

A judge in Washington ruled late on Thursday that the high-profile case, which sparked allegations of a culture of lawlessness and unaccountability at Blackwater and other private security firms in Iraq, should be thrown out due to an apparent legal technicality.

The five men, who pleaded not guilty and claimed they acted in self defence, will not face a trial for manslaughter, after Ricardo Urbina, a federal judge, decided that there had been "procedural errors" in the way evidence against them was collected.

Ms Mikhail has demanded a meeting with US embassy officials in Baghdad to hear an explanation of why the criminal case was dropped. "I don't understand why the judge took this decision," she told the news agency AFP. "They killed innocent Iraqi people that were just in their cars without any weapons. I am very astonished. So many innocent Iraqis – young, students – were shot by someone who liked to shoot unarmed people."

The bloodbath, which occurred in September 2007, threw an uncomfortable spotlight on the Bush government's policy of using private security firms (many of which had links with the Republican administration) in war zones.

Investigators concluded that the guards, who were escorting a convoy of armoured vehicles, indiscriminately fired on locals stuck in a traffic jam. They claimed to have been responding to incoming fire, but there is little evidence that any victims were armed.

The decision was welcomed by Blackwater, which lost its US government contracts in Baghdad after the killings and has subsequently changed its name to Xe. But General Ray Odierno, the commander of US forces in Iraq, said the ruling will heighten hostility faced by security workers and troops in Iraq.

Left-leaning US politicians described it as an affront to human rights. "A question I've been asking for a long time is, 'Can private military contractors actually get away with murder?'" said Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives who has sponsored legislation to outlaw the use of private contractors in war zones. "This indicates that the answer is yes."