By Aruna Viswanatha
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former security guards for Blackwater Worldwide shot first at a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007 and justified their actions later, federal prosecutors told a jury on Tuesday as the government began presenting its case over a shooting that resulted in the death of 14 unarmed Iraqis.
The guards faced no threats, yet they unleashed their fire on a mother and her son in a white Kia, obliterating the car and continuing to shoot indiscriminately as the guards traveled out of the circle, prosecutors said.
The trial, before a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, comes after years of stumbles and false starts, as the case has dragged on amid problems with evidence.
The shooting at Nisur Square, which came four years into the Iraq war, outraged Iraqis and strained ties between the United States and Iraq. At the time of the shooting, the guards were escorting a State Department convoy through the streets of the Iraqi capital.
One of the former guards, Nicholas Slatten, who allegedly fired the first shots at the square, is charged with murder. Three other men, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough, are charged with manslaughter.
Prosecutors only charged Slatten with murder after a federal appeals court this month effectively ended the manslaughter case against him.
The government began presenting its case on Tuesday afternoon after several days of jury selection.
Lawyers for the defendants, who are scheduled to begin opening statements on Wednesday, are expected to argue the guards faced hostile fire and answered in self-defense.
The trial is expected to take several months. Several witnesses, including family members of the victims, will be flown to Washington from Iraq.
Assistant U.S. Attorney T. Patrick Martin told jurors that 12 of the 19 members of the Blackwater unit did not fire their weapons at the Baghdad square. "They are going to tell you they didn't fire their weapons because they didn't see any threats," Martin said.
After returning to base camp, the guards who did fire also bragged about their exploits, Martin said. One was "high-fiving and slapping people on back as if he had just won a big football game," Martin told the jury.
Several former members of the Blackwater unit have been given immunity and are expected to testify at trial. One other guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty and is also cooperating with the government.
Blackwater Worldwide is now known as Academi and is based in McLean, Virginia.
(Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)