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U.S. judge says Blackwater Iraq shooting case must move faster

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A judge on Tuesday ordered the U.S. government to speed up its criminal case against the Blackwater Worldwide security guards who are accused of killing 14 civilians in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that strained U.S.-Iraqi relations.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth told the Justice Department to make a final decision by October 21 on precisely what charges it would pursue, telling prosecutors and defense lawyers that the case was moving too slowly.

"This case is going to end," Lamberth said at a court hearing, adding, "while I'm still alive."

The shooting occurred as the private security contractor's guards escorted U.S. diplomats through the Iraqi capital. A grand jury indicted five Blackwater guards on manslaughter charges in 2008.

The charges were thrown out in 2009 because of a dispute over whether evidence was tainted but then reinstated in 2011, leading to lengthy delays.

Prosecutors have been presenting evidence again to a grand jury and wanted until November 7 to produce a superseding indictment. They earlier said they would dismiss charges against one of the five guards, Nicholas Slatten.

The guards - also including Donald Ball, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough - were employed by Blackwater Worldwide, which is now known as Academi. A sixth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Slough's attorney, Brian Heberlig, warned of possible further delays, telling Lamberth in court that defense lawyers' preparations "are years away from when we were last approaching trial." A scheduled February 2010 trial was canceled when the charges were thrown out in December 2009.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller and Doina Chiacu)

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