FBI agents queried Berg in Iraq about possible ties to Moussaoui

Alleged 9/11 conspirator had computer password of beheaded American

May 14, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Slain American Nicholas Berg was questioned repeatedly in Iraq by FBI agents because of possible ties to al-Qaida member and accused Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, government officials said yesterday.

CIA officials also said yesterday that an analysis of a grisly video of Berg's murder strongly indicates that the masked man who stood behind Berg, read a statement linking his death to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, then cut off Berg's head was Jordanian Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The officials said Zarqawi, who's also a suspect in the 2002 murder of a U.S. official in Jordan, heads his own terrorist organization but maintains contacts with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. The United States has offered $10 million for information leading to the capture or killing of Zarqawi, whose real name is Ahmad Fadhil al Khalayleh.

When FBI agents in Iraq first questioned Berg on March 26, while he was detained at an Iraqi police station in Mosul, he was not suspected of having links to Moussaoui, a senior Justice Department official said, on condition of anonymity.

But Berg volunteered that he'd been questioned by the FBI once before, in connection with the Moussaoui investigation after his computer password turned up in Moussaoui's belongings, the official said. That piqued the FBI agents' interest, and they asked that he be held while they investigated further.

The original Moussaoui link was determined in 2002 to be "a total coincidence," the official said, and FBI agents in Iraq determined that Berg should be released, indicating they also found nothing suspicious.

But the investigation delayed Berg's release long enough that he missed a flight back to the United States on March 30. By the time he returned to Baghdad on April 6, Iraq was in the grip of a bloody insurgency, with U.S. troops fighting throughout the country and foreigners being taken hostage.

Berg's father acknowledged in a television interview earlier yesterday that his son had once been questioned by the FBI because of the computer password, but he could not be reached for comment about the reason for his son's detention in Mosul.

Another government official confirmed that FBI agents in Iraq were interested in Berg's possible Moussaoui connection, but declined to be identified by agency or name because a judge has imposed a gag order in the Moussaoui case.

Berg checked out of his hotel on April 10 and wasn't seen again until his beheaded body was found by U.S. soldiers on Saturday. The grisly video of his beheading was posted Tuesday on the Internet.

Berg attended the University of Oklahoma for a time, and Moussaoui, who was arrested in August 2001 in Minnesota when he tried to enroll in flight school, had lived in Norman, Okla., where the school is located. FBI officials don't know how Moussaoui got Berg's password, but they were originally investigating whether Berg had been friends with two of Moussaoui's roommates, Hussein al Attas and Mukkaram Ali, who also were students.

The Moussaoui link added another twist to the already strange tale of Berg's time in Iraq. As a rare American not tied to a major Defense Department contractor, Berg had spent months in Iraq drumming up business as a communications tower repairman. He often took public transportation and didn't have a driver or translator.

U.S. officials have denied that Berg was in U.S. custody in Iraq. But Berg's family had apparently been told by e-mail from a State Department consular officer that Berg was being held by the U.S. military.

State Department officials confirmed yesterday the authenticity of the April 1 e-mail from Beth A. Payne, who was the U.S. consular officer in Baghdad until mid-April. But a State Department spokeswoman said the e-mail was inaccurate.

Other versions of events surfaced yesterday. A U.S. general in Mosul said Iraqi police detained Berg at the FBI's request, but the police chief of Mosul disputed assertions that his department arrested Berg.

Berg of West Chester, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, had gone to Mosul on what he told friends would be a two-day trip to look for new business when he was arrested March 24 by Iraqi police.

Berg told friends in Baghdad after he was released that the police had detained him because they suspected he was an Israeli spy. His friends quoted him as saying the police became suspicious because of his last name and an Israeli stamp that was in his passport.

During his detention, Berg was visited three times by FBI agents and monitored for his well-being by U.S. military police, U.S. officials say, but Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition running Iraq, said that Berg "was at no time under the jurisdiction or within the detention of coalition forces."

And the police chief of Mosul said yesterday that his department never arrested Berg. But there was little doubt that the detention wasn't happenstance. Brig. Gen. Carter Ham said yesterday in Mosul that the FBI asked Iraqi police to keep Berg until his identity and purpose could be verified.

Friends say Berg told them that he had been detained initially by Iraqi police for several hours and then was transferred to coalition custody.

Berg carried electronic equipment for his work climbing communications towers and that may have added to suspicions, a friend said.

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