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Date set for new indictment in Blackwater shooting

Eric Tucker, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A judge on Tuesday gave federal prosecutors until next month to present a new indictment against former Blackwater Worldwide security contractors accused in a 2007 shooting of Iraqi civilians.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth set an Oct. 21 date for a new indictment against the guards. Prosecutors said they had essentially finished presenting evidence, including 1,500 pages of transcripts, to a grand jury but the charging decisions require review by multiple Justice Department officials. They said they planned to make an announcement by Nov. 7, but Lamberth demanded a decision before then.

"All I've heard is request for delay after request for delay," the judge said. "I've reached about the end of my rope."

The case has wound through federal court for years. A different judge dismissed the first set of charges but an appeals court in 2011 reversed that decision and resurrected the case, prompting the Justice Department to seek a new indictment before the grand jury. Defense lawyers met with the U.S. Attorney's office in May to discourage prosecutors from bringing new charges.

The Sept. 16, 2007, shooting occurred when security contractors guarding U.S. diplomats opened fire in Nisoor Square, a crowded Baghdad intersection, killing 17 Iraqi civilians. Prosecutors said the gunfire was unprovoked, though the company has said the guards were responding to an ambush by insurgents.

Five guards were charged, though the status of one defendant, Nicholas Slatten, was put in limbo after prosecutors agreed to drop him from the case in 2009. Prosecutors say the appeals court ruling means Slatten remains part of the case; his lawyers disagree. Lamberth denied on Tuesday a request for a ruling on Slatten's status.

One defense lawyer, Brian Heberlig, suggested he and other attorneys would have significant work to do to prepare for a trial in the event prosecutors proceed with charges. He requested a separate hearing to argue that the contractors, who reported to the State Department, could not be properly charged under a federal statute designed to cover Defense Department contractors accused of crimes overseas or those supporting the American war mission abroad.

Lamberth said such a hearing wouldn't be necessary and would only add to the delay.

"This case is going to end on my level in the future while I'm still alive," he said.

The judge set a status conference in the case for Oct. 25.

The company formerly known as Blackwater is under new ownership and now headquartered in Virginia. It had changed its name to Xe Services, but the company was sold to a group of investors who then changed the name to Academi. Blackwater founder Erik Prince no longer has any affiliation with the company.