Beheading Victim 'Loved Adventure and Risk'
By Sewell Chan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 14, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD, May 13 -- Nicholas Berg came to Iraq in December with little more than a bag of tools and a desire to find work in his chosen trade: repairing transmission towers. He hoped to tap the opportunities available to individual contractors willing to brave the hazards of living in a war-scarred country.
In the four months before he was decapitated by Islamic guerrillas who said they were avenging the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, Berg was robbed once, detained twice and held for 13 days by Iraqi police who were both incredulous and suspicious that an American would travel alone.
Yet he resisted the advice of friends and family members to leave Iraq, despite the emergence in early April of a violent insurgency and the frequent abductions and killings of foreigners, irrespective of nationality or occupation.
"The good thing was that he meant no harm to anyone," said Radhi Munthri, an Iraqi who worked for Berg as a driver. "The bad thing was that he never listened to anyone."
The portrait of Berg that emerges from interviews with his associates here and his family in Pennsylvania, as well as from his e-mails to friends, depicts an independent, optimistic and somewhat reckless young man who impressed engineers with his technical knowledge but exasperated others with his naive willingness to take risks.
His carefree nature may have contributed to his untimely death. A video distributed on the Internet on Tuesday showed five masked, black-clad gunmen beheading Berg and attributed the act to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who is wanted by the United States for the killing of a U.S. official in 2002. The CIA said Thursday that it believed Zarqawi was behind the killing of Berg.
Nicholas Evan Berg graduated from high school in 1996. The former Boy Scout studied engineering at Cornell University but dropped out and later took a job working in Texas for a company that built radio towers. He traveled in Africa and started his own business, Prometheus Methods Tower Service, in his home town of West Chester, Pa., outside Philadelphia.
Unafraid of heights or travel, Berg became excited by the idea of going to Iraq to help repair radio and television towers that had been damaged during the war last year. In early December, he and 400 other people attended a two-day conference at a hotel in Arlington promoting opportunities to rebuild Iraq.
"He was clean-cut, well educated," said Richard Greene Jr., who met Berg at the conference and stayed in touch with him by e-mail. "He came across as a professional."
Berg became convinced that the only way to find work in Iraq was simply to go, according to Greene, who owns a small technology company in Fayetteville, N.C., that employs eight people in Iraq through a subcontract with the U.S. government.
"In order to get a contract on the ground there, you need to be in-country," Greene said. "You need to have a presence. Nick decided to go over and see if he could find some work."
Fearful of the dangers, Berg's mother implored her son to change his mind. She even worried that his favorite blue-checked shirt would make him stand out as a foreigner. "We definitely did not want him to go," Suzanne Berg said in a telephone interview.
Berg left the United States in December, flying to Tel Aviv and then to Amman, Jordan, before getting a ride to Baghdad. He checked into the large Babylon Hotel, in the well-to-do Jadriyah neighborhood, and began making business proposals to various companies working on reconstruction projects.
Omar Abdul-Karim, who met Berg in January, said he used to pick up an American colleague from the same hotel and was startled to see Berg take a taxicab to the Green Zone, the heavily fortified compound that serves as the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company