msnbc.com news services
updated 4/5/2008 8:19:56 AM ET 2008-04-05T12:19:56

A civilian contractor working in Iraq has been charged under U.S. military law for the first time, officials said on Saturday.

Alaa "Alex" Mohammad Ali is accused with aggravated assault in connection with the stabbing of another contractor, the military said in a statement. He holds dual Iraqi-Canadian citizenship.

The statement said he was the first contractor charged under an amendment passed by Congress in 2006, which governs military trials for contractors accompanying U.S. troops.

Ali, an army translator, has been held by U.S. military authorities since February and will face his first pre-trial hearing on April 10. He will be given the same rights as a U.S. service member facing military court, the statement said.

Col. Bill Buckner, a military spokesman, said it is the first time since 1968 that a civilian working for the military has been charged under military law.

There are more than 160,000 contractors working in Iraq and some 36,000 in Afghanistan —about the same number of troops in those regions. They are responsible for a slew of duties, including supplying food and water, building barracks, providing armed security and gathering intelligence.

The contractors have operated in a legal gray area because officials exempted them from prosecution in Iraqi courts in 2004.

Their legal status has been the subject of substantial controversy, especially since last September when contractors from the U.S. firm Blackwater were accused of killing 17 people in a shooting incident in Baghdad.

The FBI is investigating whether Blackwater employees broke any laws in that incident, which angered the Iraqi government.

The Blackwater staff were employed by the State Department to guard embassy officials and it is not clear if they could be prosecuted under laws covering contractors accompanying the military, or other U.S. laws.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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