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U.S. lawyers for Blackwater guards say 2007 Baghdad shooting was self defense

By Aruna Viswanatha

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Blackwater security guards faced gunfire from multiple directions and acted in self defense when they shot into a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007, their lawyers told a jury on Wednesday in a case over the killing of 14 unarmed people during the Iraq war.

The guards, who were securing a route for a U.S. State Department convoy, made split-second decisions to defend themselves and their team and should not be second guessed years later, even if civilians were killed, two lawyers said.

"They did their jobs," said Brian Heberlig, a lawyer for one of the guards, Paul Slough, said. "These men committed no crimes."

The trial of the four men formerly with Blackwater unit Raven 23 over the shooting in Nisur Square comes as rebels in Iraq have engaged in a lightning advance to seize main cities across the north of the country.

U.S. prosecutors say that the Blackwater guards did not face hostile gunfire and recklessly opened fire and continued shooting even though they did not face any threats. The killings sparked international outrage.

Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty are charged with manslaughter over some of the deaths, attempt to commit manslaughter and a firearms offense that carries a mandatory 30-year sentence.

A fourth guard, Nicholas Slatten, is charged with murdering the driver of a white Kia, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y. That car's movement toward the Blackwater convoy prompted the guards to open fire in the belief it could be a car bomb, one of the lawyers said.

A federal prosecutor on Tuesday painted a very different picture of Slatten firing the first shots at the Kia and of the car only inching forward after the driver had been hit because he could not keep his foot on the brake pedal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney T. Patrick Martin at the time told jurors that the majority of the other members of the Blackwater unit would testify that they did not see any threats at Nisur Square. Their testimony is expected later this summer during what is expected to be a four-month-long trial.

On Wednesday a lawyer for Heard, David Schertler, told the jury the opposite, that the court would instead hear "overwhelming evidence" of incoming fire.

Logs of real-time reports from the incident, which lasted less than half an hour, showed the guards believed they were under attack, Schertler said.

A report from 12:12 pm, for example, one minute after the convoy locked down the square, warned of multiple insurgents and small arms fire, according to logs that he showed the jury.

The guards are charged under a U.S. law that covers contractors who support Defense Department missions. Since the Blackwater unit was working for the State Department, the jury will also decide whether the law applies to them.

Blackwater Worldwide is now known as Academi and is based in McLean, Virginia.

(Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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