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The mysterious last weeks of Nicholas Berg

Conflicting accounts retrace his travels and detention in Iraq

Thursday, May 13, 2004

BY ROBERT H. REID

Associated Press

BAGHDAD -- U.S. authorities said yesterday the young Pennsylvania man beheaded by militants had been warned by the FBI to leave Iraq and was offered a plane ride to safety at a time when a new wave of violence was spreading across the country, making road travel extremely dangerous.

Mystery surrounded not only Nicholas Berg's disappearance but also why he had been held by Iraqi police for about two weeks and questioned by FBI agents three times.

Berg's family disputed U.S. officials' claims that Berg was never in U.S. custody.

"The Iraqi police do not tell the FBI what to do, the FBI tells the Iraqi police what to do. Who do they think they're kidding?" Berg's father, Michael, told the Associated Press from his home in West Whiteland Township, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.

Berg was last in contact with his family April 9, and with U.S. officials in Baghdad the next day. Staff members at the $30-a-night Fanar Hotel in Baghdad said Berg had stayed there for several days, checking out April 10.

Berg's body was found in Baghdad Saturday. Three days later, a videotape of the execution appeared on a Web site linked to al Qaeda.

Yesterday, President Bush said "there's no justification" for Berg's execution and that those who beheaded him wanted to "shake" America's resolve in bringing democracy to Iraq. Bush also expressed his condolences to Berg's family, calling him an "innocent civilian in Iraq to build a free Iraq."

"Their intention is to shake our will," Bush said. "Their intention is to shake our confidence. Yet by their actions they remind us of how desperately parts of the world need free societies. ... We will complete our mission, we will complete our mission."

Two e-mail messages sent by Berg to his family and friends show the 26-year-old telecommunications expert had traveled widely and unguarded throughout Iraq -- an unsafe practice rarely done by Westerners.

The FBI warned Berg shortly before his disappearance that Iraq was too volatile a place for unprotected American civilians but he turned down a State Department offer to fly him home, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Michael Berg said his son refused a U.S. offer in early April to board an outbound charter jet because he believed travel to the airport was too dangerous. American soldiers refer to the airport highway as "RPG Alley" because of frequent attacks by insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades.

According to the State Department, Berg told an American diplomat in Baghdad that he preferred to travel on his own to Kuwait.

"At that time, the U.S. consular officer extended an offer to assist Mr. Berg to depart Iraq by plane to Jordan," said State Department spokeswoman Kelly Shannon. "We'd already discussed that possibility with his family, and we mentioned that to him, obviously, when we talked to him on the 10th."

His family said Berg had already intended to leave the country on March 30 but that his detention prevented him from doing so.

Berg first worked in Iraq in December and January and returned in March. He was inspecting communications facilities, some of them destroyed in the war or by looters.

During his time in Iraq, he struggled with the Arabic language and worked at night on a tower in Abu Ghraib, a site of repeated attacks on U.S. convoys and the location of the notorious prison where U.S. soldiers abused Iraqi inmates.

Michael Berg told the AP that Nicholas' paternal aunt, now dead, married an Iraqi man named Mudafer, who became close to Nicholas. In one of the e-mail messages, Nicholas Berg describes going to the northern city of Mosul, where he introduced himself to Mudafer's brother, identified as Moffak Mustaffa.

"We got along splendidly," Berg wrote. "We spent a few hours and I helped him establish an e-mail account."

Berg noted that "my presence ... made him more concerned (about his own safety and probably mine too) than I've been the entire time I've been here."

The videotape of Berg's death bore the title "Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi shown slaughtering an American," referring to an associate of Osama bin Laden believed behind a wave of suicide bombings in Iraq.

In Washington, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was likely Zarqawi himself was "the lead perpetrator." Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is wanted in the killing of an American diplomat in Jordan in 2002 and is suspected of ordering many suicide bombings in Iraq.

U.S. spokesmen Dan Senor and Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt were quick to offer statements of condolence to Berg's family and to draw attention to the barbarity of his death. Senor also said that "to my knowledge" Berg was not affiliated with any U.S. or coalition organization, nor was he ever in U.S. custody.

However, Senor said Iraqi police arrested Berg in Mosul March 24 because local authorities believed he was involved in "suspicious activities."

Senor refused to say more, citing the sensitivity of the case. But he did confirm that the Americans were aware Berg was in custody.

"U.S. authorities were notified," he said. "The FBI visited Mr. Berg on three occasions and determined that he was not involved with any criminal or terrorist activity."

In a statement, the FBI said that its agents encouraged Berg to accept offers to help him leave Iraq safely. "Mr. Berg refused these offers," the statement said.

Berg was released April 6 and checked into the Baghdad hotel.

Senor referred questions about the reason for Berg's detention to the Iraqi police. In Mosul, however, police told the AP they had no knowledge of the Berg case. Police official Safwan Talal said the only American arrested there in recent months was a woman who was released soon afterward.

Since Iraq remains under U.S. military occupation, it seems unlikely Iraqi police would have held any American for such a length of time without at least the tacit approval of U.S. authorities.

Berg told his family that U.S. officials took custody of him soon after his arrest and he was not allowed to make phone calls or contact a lawyer, his father said.

Kimmitt said U.S. forces kept tabs on Berg during his confinement to make sure he was being fed and properly treated, because "he was an American citizen."

But the three FBI visits suggest American authorities were concerned about more than Berg's well-being. They may have had their own suspicions about what the young American was doing in Iraq.

After being freed, Berg told friends in Baghdad that the police arrested him because he had a Jewish-sounding last name and an Israeli stamp in his passport.

"They thought he was a spy," said Hugo Infante, a Chilean who works for the United Press International news service and lives at the hotel where Berg stayed until he checked out April 10.

During a briefing yesterday, Senor confirmed that Berg had registered with the U.S. Consulate in Baghdad but insisted Berg "was not a U.S. government employee, he has no affiliation with the coalition, and to our knowledge he has no affiliation with any Coalition Provisional Authority contractor."

He also stated Berg "was at no time under the jurisdiction or detention of coalition forces."

However, in a Jan. 18 e-mail, Berg said his company had been announced as an approved subcontractor for a broadcast consortium awarded a contract for the U.S.-controlled Iraqi Media Network.

"Practically, this means we should be involved with quite a bit of tower work as part of the reconstruction, repair and new construction of the Iraqi Media Network," he wrote, referring to the network as "something like NPR in the U.S.," meaning National Public Radio.

It was unclear whether the contract was revoked.

FBI agents visited Berg's parents March 31 and told the family they were trying to confirm their son's identity.

On April 5, the Bergs sued the government in federal court in Philadelphia, contending their son was being held illegally. In a writ filed that day in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, the Bergs said the State Department told them their son "is currently detained in Mosul, Iraq, by the United States military" and that American diplomats "no longer" had "any authority or power to intervene" on his behalf.

Berg was released the day after the suit was filed. His family said he told them he had not been mistreated. They did not hear from him after April 9 -- when violence flared in Iraq because of the U.S. Marines' siege of Fallujah and a Shi'a uprising in the south.

Several days later, diplomats received an e-mail from Berg's family that "noted he had not been in contact," Shannon said.

On April 14, the consulate sent a private contractor to the Fanar Hotel to see if Berg was still there.

"The people we talked to at the hotel didn't remember him being there," Shannon said.

Diplomats then alerted the U.S. military to be on the lookout for him.

But hotel staffers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Berg had stayed in Room 602 from April 6 until April 10. One of them said Berg lived in the same room during an earlier visit, which the employee could not remember.

An employee described Berg as a "nice guy" who "always smiled and said hello," unlike other foreign guests. "Once he told me, 'I'd like to learn Arabic.'"

"He was very sportive -- had muscles -- and liked the Internet," another hotel worker recalled. "He usually left the hotel in the morning and returned late, around 10 p.m., usually carrying a sack of beer and mineral water."

Reuters contributed to this report.