By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, Jan 6 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday set a trial for early next year for five Blackwater security guards accused of killing 14 unarmed civilians in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that strained U.S.-Iraqi relations.
The judge scheduled jury selection to begin on Jan. 29 of next year after the five defendants formally entered a not guilty plea to the charges over the shooting that also injured 20 Iraqis.
The five men are charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter and one weapons violation count over the shooting that outraged Iraqis.
A sixth Blackwater guard pleaded guilty late last year to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter, and has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and testify at trial.
The shooting occurred as the private security firm's guards escorted a heavily armed four-truck convoy of U.S. diplomats through Baghdad on Sept. 16, 2007. The guards, U.S. military veterans, were responding to a car bombing when shooting erupted in a crowded intersection.
North Carolina-based Blackwater, the largest security contractor in Iraq, has said that it understands the guards acted within the rules set forth for them by the U.S. government and that no criminal violations occurred.
U.S. Justice Department lawyer Kenneth Kohl said at the hearing that witnesses would be coming from Iraq and estimated it would take about four weeks for the prosecution to put on its case at trial.
"This is a straightforward shooting of a lot of people," Kohl said, adding that he does not expect the case to be delayed by complex classified intelligence issues.
While Kohl wanted the trial to begin in the fall, defense lawyers said they needed more time to file various motions and challenges, to gather evidence and to go Iraq for interviews.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina agreed to begin the trial early next year but made clear he would not allow needless delays that result in the defense unfairly benefiting from faded memories and witnesses becoming unavailable.
"My interest is getting this case tried as soon as reasonably possible," Urbina said.
U.S. Justice Department officials have said there was no evidence that any of the other 13 members of the convoy or that Blackwater itself committed any wrongdoing in the shooting.
The defendants are former Marines Donald Ball of West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard of Knoxville, Tennessee; Evan Liberty of Rochester, New Hampshire; and Army veterans Nick Slatten of Sparta, Tennessee, and Paul Slough of Keller, Texas. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)