Nice way to endear yourself to a Government we are meant to be helping find its feet!!

Blackwater bodyguards 'given immunity'

The US State Department promised Blackwater USA bodyguards immunity from prosecution in its investigation of last month's deadly shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians, casting doubt on whether anyone will be charged, The Associated Press has learned.

As a result, it will likely be months before the United States can - if ever - bring criminal charges in the case that has infuriated the Iraqi Government.

"Once you give immunity, you can't take it away," said a senior law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.

State Department officials would not confirm or deny that immunity had been granted.

One official, who refused to be quoted by name, said: "If in fact such a decision was made, it was done without any input or authorisation from any senior State Department official in Washington."

FBI agents were returning to Washington late today from Baghdad, where they have been trying to collect evidence in the September 16 embassy convoy shooting without using statements from Blackwater employees who were given immunity.

Three senior law enforcement officials said all the Blackwater bodyguards involved - both in the vehicle convoy and in at least two helicopters above - were given the legal protections as investigators from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security sought to find out what happened. The bureau is an arm of the State Department.

The investigative misstep comes in the wake of already-strained relations between the United States and Iraq, which is demanding the right to launch its own prosecution of the Blackwater bodyguards.

Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell declined comment about the US investigation. Blackwater USA is the largest private security firm protecting US diplomats in Iraq.

The company has said its September 16 convoy was under attack before it opened fire in west Baghdad's Nisoor Square, killing 17 Iraqis. A follow-up investigation by the Iraqi government, however, concluded that Blackwater's men were unprovoked. No witnesses have been found to contradict that finding.

An initial incident report by US Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, also indicated "no enemy activity involved" in the September 16 incident. The report says Blackwater guards were travelling against the flow of traffic through a traffic circle when they "engaged five civilian vehicles with small arms fire" at a distance of 50 metres.

The FBI took over the case early this month, officials said, after prosecutors in the Justice Department's criminal division realised it could not bring charges against Blackwater guards based on their statements to the Diplomatic Security investigators.

Officials said the Blackwater bodyguards spoke only after receiving so-called "Garrity" protections, requiring that their statements only be used internally - and not for criminal prosecutions.

Prosecutors will have to prove that any evidence they use in bringing charges against Blackwater employees was uncovered without using the guards' statements to State Department investigators. They "have to show we got the information independently", one official said.

Blackwater bodyguards 'given immunity' - World -