The five Blackwater security guards accused of the gruesome murder of 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in September 2007 — including a mother and infant whose bodies were reportedly fused together in the burning hull of their car — will finally face justice. They turned themselves in this morning to authorities in Utah. Only one of the guards lives in Utah, but word is their lawyers felt the men would get a more sympathetic jury there. A fight over venue with federal prosecutors is expected.

[UPDATE : A federal judge has since ruled that the guards cannot be tried in friendly Utah, rather the case will be heard in Washington D.C]

In Iraq, they are hailing an end to the arrogant swagger of what became — unfairly or not — the prototypical American private security man. Not only are these the first serious federal charges to be brought against American contractors (two preliminary investigations of the incident by the FBI and military have reportedly found the Blackwater guards were not fired upon like they claim, that in fact, the civilians were unarmed), but under the new Status of Forces Agreement, such contractors will no longer have the so-called “immunity” they’ve enjoyed since the war began. Hired mostly now by State Department diplomats who need the physical cover to get from place to place, private security services like Blackwater have largely become a symbol for our debased reputation among the Iraqi people.

In an interview I conducted in late 2007 for “Hired Guns,” a TAC report on the subject of private security contractors in Iraq, I talked to U.S servicemen on and off the record about how the cowboy antics of the private goons — everything from barreling through town in their Humvees without a care for who was in the way, to firing indiscriminately on civilian cars in traffic — put everyone at risk, even U.S military who oftentimes found themselves the brunt of Iraqi anger and humiliation.

“They (private security)don’t have to explain themselves. We’ve all witnessed them shooting up cars, and then they just drive off in their SUVs, wearing their ballcaps, sunglasses, and full beards. If we shot up a car, we couldn’t leave the scene for two days,” (Ret.) Marine Sgt. Nick Benas, who served in Iraq from July 2004 to March 2005, told me at the time.

“I feel that many of the contractors here have no respect for the locals and are doing a great deal of harm to our reputation,” an Army lieutenant stationed in Afghanistan e-mailed to me.

For Iraqis thousands of miles away, the prosecution of the Blackwater Five signifies a justice they were unsure our government was even capable of. To us, it is one of many lessons, and perhaps a glimmer of hope too, that our government isn’t all about covering its behind when push comes to shove, and when unchecked power turns to murder.