Vice President Joe Biden today expressed personal regret over the 2007 shooting in which Blackwater guards working for the U.S. government in Baghdad, shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians, and he said the United States would appeal a recent court decision to dismiss the charges against the men implicated in the killings.
On Sept. 16, 2007, Blackwater guards who were protecting a motorcade of U.S. embassy officials in Baghdad, opened fire in Nisour Square.
Iraqi government officials claim the Blackwater guards were shooting indiscriminately at civilians. Blackwater contends that the guards were fired on first and were acting in self-defense and to protect their State Department charges.
The event unleased a furor of anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world.
Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Burke Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Nisour Square shooting has been used as a rallying cry for jihadists and has been a powerful recruiting tool.
"There are American men and women in uniform that were sent home in body bags because of the anger and hatred this created," he said.
Five Blackwater guards were ultimately charged with manslaughter and a sixth pleaded guilty. But last month, a U.S. court dismissed the entire case on a technicality.
Speaking in Baghdad today, Biden said that was unacceptable.
"A dismissal, I want to make clear, is not an acquittal and today I'm announcing that the U.S. will appeal this decision," he said.
The shooting and the lawsuits it triggered have debilitated Blackwater to some extent. The company was kicked out of Iraq and had its license to work there revoked and now the company is operating under a new name -- Xe -- to try to wipe the slate clean and undo some of the public relations damage it has suffered.
The company still maintains that its employees acted lawfully that day, but Iraqi leaders call it a massacre.
"It seems that they were let go on a technicality," Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaida'ie said. "And that generated real disappointment in Iraq. So let's hope that American justice will actually deliver justice."
Cordesman says the longer the case goes unresolved, the more toxic it becomes.
"In many ways it's like Abu Ghraib," he said. "It's a symbol to many people that the United States isn't serious about democracy, That it is acting out of its own interests without concern for the human rights and the rule of law."
Iraqi officials have said this case alone is not enough to erode the relationship between the United States and Iraq, which are now as the Iraqi Ambassador says, "joined at the hip" for better or for worse.
But they admit, the sooner the case is resolved, the better.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said the agency will file an appeal in the Blackwater case sometime next week.