FBI Visited Berg 3 Times in Iraqi Jail
Family of Decapitated American Contends U.S. Was Responsible for Illegal Detention
By Sewell Chan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page A21
BAGHDAD, May 12 -- An American businessman who was beheaded recently in Iraq was visited by FBI agents while he was being held in an Iraqi jail in late March and early April, and he remained in detention for nearly two weeks even though agents eventually recommended that he be freed, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Nicholas Berg, 26, of West Chester, Pa., vanished after he left his Baghdad hotel on April 10, four days after his release by Iraqi police in the northern city of Mosul. His body was found near Baghdad on Saturday, and his death became public Tuesday when a video depicting his decapitation by Islamic militants appeared on the Internet.
In a pleading filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia last month, Berg's parents contended that his incarceration, which began with his detention on March 24, prevented him from returning to the United States on a flight that was to have arrived in New York on March 30.
As arrangements were made instead to fly Berg's remains to Kuwait and then to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, important questions about his death remained unanswered, including why he was detained for nearly two weeks, and how and when he was abducted and killed.
The Internet display of Berg's slaying and the gruesome disposal of his body constituted one of the most brutal examples in a wave of killings and kidnappings of foreigners in Iraq. An independent businessman, Berg came to Iraq seeking to help repair communications towers and had no affiliation with the U.S. government, officials said.
In Washington, President Bush said there was "no justification for the brutal execution of Nicholas Berg, no justification whatsoever. The actions of the terrorists who executed this man remind us of the nature of the few people who want to stop the advance of freedom in Iraq. . . . We will complete our mission, we will complete our task."
The video attributed responsibility for the killing to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian accused of organizing attacks against occupation forces in Iraq. U.S. officials say he has ties to al Qaeda.
A U.S. official in Baghdad said Wednesday that soldiers from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division on a routine patrol found Berg's headless body at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, hanging from a highway overpass a few miles east of Baghdad International Airport. His head lay on the ground nearby, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Berg's parents contend that because he was detained by the Iraqi police, one of several security agencies established by U.S.-led occupation authority, the U.S. military effectively had custody of him and was holding him without cause. On Wednesday, U.S. officials denied that the military held Berg but acknowledged that FBI agents interviewed him three times during his detention before concluding he was not a threat.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led occupation authority, Daniel Senor, offered little information about the case. "I'm reluctant to release any details at this point," he said. "The U.S. government is committed to a very thorough and robust investigation to get to the bottom of this."
The FBI and the Army's Criminal Investigation Division are involved in the case, and Senor said a decision would soon be announced about which agency would lead the investigation. Federal statutes allow the FBI to investigate terrorist killings of U.S. citizens overseas.
In interviews here, two friends who saw Berg after he was released from detention said he told them he had been arrested at a checkpoint in Mosul when Iraqi police examined his U.S. passport and noticed an Israeli stamp. Travel documents indicating an individual has been in Israel have long sparked suspicion in the Middle East; many Arab countries routinely refuse entry to travelers whose passports bear stamps from Israel.
"He said, 'You want to hear an interesting story? They thought I was a spy because I had a Jewish last name and had an Israeli stamp in my passport,' " said Hugo Infante, 31, a Chilean freelance journalist. "He wasn't [upset]. It was like an adventure for him."
Aziz Taee, 40, an Iraqi business associate of Berg's who has lived in the Philadelphia area for most of the past 20 years, said Berg "was in a taxicab after midnight, stopped during a routine check. The police saw in his passport the Israeli stamp."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company