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It's said that American contractors in Iraq operate beyond the law. Now a grand jury and a lawsuit are testing that proposition. In September, Blackwater guards were involved in a shooting incident in a Baghdad traffic circle. Seventeen Iraqis were killed. This week federal investigators and outside lawyers were building their case.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston looks at how the Justice Department might prosecute this case.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The details of the September Blackwater shooting are achingly familiar by now. A convoy of Blackwater vehicles entered a Baghdad traffic circle on September 16th, and a short time later shots rang out.

Blackwater has said they began firing into oncoming cars in self-defense. But a subsequent FBI inquiry suggests that the shootout was unprovoked. Seventeen Iraqis died in the incident.

Ms. SUSAN BURKE (Attorney): We have not found anyone, anyone at all, who is coming forward and saying that they saw a shot fired or any type of threat made upon these Blackwater shooters.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Susan Burke is a Philadelphia attorney who filed a civil suit this week against the military contractor. She is representing five families who lost relatives in the incident and two people who survived the shooting.

Her name might be familiar. She's also one of the lawyers behind a class action suit against civilian contractors who took part in prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. She says the cases are quite similar.

Ms. BURKE: Both these cases pose a very important issue for us as Americans. When a company makes millions of dollars in providing services to the American government, is the company nonetheless still responsible for ensuring that its workers do what they're supposed to?

TEMPLE-RASTON: A new detail to emerge in the civil case is the possibility that the Blackwater guards in the square that day weren't supposed to be there at all. A dispatcher may have told them to stay with the State Department official they were guarding.

Again, Susan Burke.

Ms. BURKE: That operation center had told the Blackwater teams, these TFT teams, to stay put. So that at the time they were in the square, they were actually disobeying the instructions from the government.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A government official familiar with the case said that investigators were looking into whether Blackwater ignored a direct order and how that might play in a court case. The more immediate challenge for prosecutors has been to find an American law that applies to an overseas case.

Bob Chadwell is a former assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle. He says prosecuting these guys isn't a slamdunk.

Mr. BOB CHADWELL (Former Assistant U.S. Attorney): They're going to have to try to shoehorn the facts, you know, that took place in Iraq into a statute that wasn't designed to address that concern. And anytime you do that, you run into a potential problem, you know, because if the law is not meant to address something, it's sometimes like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. It just can't be done.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Legal experts say the Justice Department is probably looking to shoehorn the case into one of two American laws. One applies to people employed by or accompanying U.S. armed forces overseas. If they commit a crime that would result in more than a year in prison had it been committed in the U.S., they could fall under U.S. jurisdiction.

Others say prosecutors could use a war crimes statute related to the Geneva Conventions. It allows U.S. courts to have jurisdiction over someone who intentionally kills one or more people who aren't taking part in hostilities.

Mr. DAVID LAUFMAN (Former Justice Department Official): Typically, prosecutors will give grand jurors some idea of what types of offenses they're investigating.

TEMPLE-RASTON: David Laufman is a former Justice Department official and federal prosecutor.

Mr. LAUFMAN: But they need not commit themselves to what specific statutes were violated until they reach the point of presenting an indictment to the grand jury and have essentially refined the case.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So far, the Justice Department has been tight-lipped about the crimes they believe the Blackwater guards might have committed. A federal grand jury is hearing from witnesses this week, and the Justice Department has said it could be months before they seek an actual indictment.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.

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