May 12, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq - An American civilian who was beheaded in a grisly video posted on an al-Qaeda-linked Web site was never in U.S. custody despite claims from his family, a coalition spokesman said Wednesday.
The body of Nicholas Berg, 26, was found Saturday near a highway overpass in Baghdad on Saturday, the same day he was decapitated, a U.S. official said.
Berg, who disappeared April 9, was shown in the video on a Web site bearing the title "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.
The video posted Tuesday showed a bound Berg in an orange jumpsuit - similar to those issued to prisoners held by the American military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was sitting in front of five men, their faces masked, as one read an anti-American text.
After pushing Berg to the floor, the men severed his head using sawing motions with a big knife and held it up for the camera. They said his killing was in response to the abuse of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison.
The body of the telecommunications businessman, a practicing Jew from West Chester, Pa., was being flown to Dover, Del., on an Air Force plane, the military said.
But unanswered questions remained about Berg in the days before he vanished, as well as where and when he was abducted.
Berg spoke to his parents March 24 and told them he would return home on March 30, according to his family in suburban Philadelphia.
But Berg was detained by Iraqi police at a checkpoint in Mosul on March 24. He was turned over to U.S. officials and detained for 13 days, the family said.
His father, Michael, said his son was not allowed to make phone calls or contact a lawyer.
Coalition spokesman Dan Senor told reporters that Berg was detained by Iraqi police in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The Iraqis informed the Americans, and the FBI questioned him three times about what he was doing in Iraq.
Senor said that to his knowledge Berg "was at no time under the jurisdiction or detention of coalition forces."
However, calls by The Associated Press to police in Mosul failed to find anyone who could confirm Berg was held there. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority runs Iraq, controlling not only the police, but the military and all government ministries.
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 filed suit in federal court in Philadelphia, contending their son was being held illegally by the U.S. military. The next day, Berg was released. He told his parents he had not been mistreated.
Berg's father blamed the U.S. government for creating circumstances that led to his son's death, saying if his son had not been detained for so long, he might have been able to leave Iraq before the violence worsened.
"I think a lot of people are fed up with the lack of civil rights this thing has caused," Michael Berg said. "I don't think this administration is committed to democracy."
Asked for details about Berg's last weeks in Iraq, Senor replied: "We are obviously trying to piece all this together, and there's a thorough investigation." He said he was reluctant to release details but did not say why.
"The U.S. government is committed to a very thorough and robust investigation to get to the bottom of this," Senor said, adding that "multiple" U.S. agencies would be involved and that the FBI would probably have overall direction.
Senor said that in Iraq, Berg had no affiliation with the U.S. government, the coalition or "to my knowledge" any coalition-affiliated contractor. But Senor would not specify why Iraqi police, who generally take direction from coalition authorities, had arrested him and held him.
Brig. Gen Mark Kimmitt said the only role the U.S. military played in Berg's confinement was to liaise with the Iraqi police to make sure he was being fed and properly treated because "he was still an American citizen."
It was unclear whether al-Zarqawi was shown in the Web site video or simply ordered the killing. Al-Zarqawi also is sought in the assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan in 2002, and Washington has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture or killing.
Berg's father, brother and sister wept in their front yard Tuesday when told of the video.
"I knew he was decapitated before," said his father, Michael. "That manner is preferable to a long and torturous death. But I didn't want it to become public."
The father said "there's a better chance than not" that his son's captors knew he was Jewish. "If there was any doubt that they were going to kill him, that probably clinched it, I'm guessing," he said.
Amnesty International condemned the killing as "a serious crime under international law," and said those responsible should be brought to justice.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said there was "no justification for the deliberate and brutal killing of an innocent civilian."
U.S. officials fear the savage killing might prompt more foreigners working on international reconstruction projects to flee the country.
Since the security situation deteriorated last month, about three out of 10 Americans and other non-Iraqis involved in reconstruction projects financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development have fled Iraq, the USAID director Andrew Natsios told The Associated Press.
Berg's killing happened amid a climate of intense anti-Western sentiment, which flared in Iraq after last month's crackdown on Shiite extremists and the three-week Marine siege of Fallujah west of Baghdad. Anger at the United States swelled with the publication of photographs showing Iraqis abused and humiliated at Abu Ghraib prison, which continue to stir rage throughout the Arab world.
U.S. officials had feared the shocking photographs would endanger the lives of American troops and civilians.
Seven soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company face charges in the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in a scandal that has sparked worldwide outrage. One of those soldiers faces a court-martial in Baghdad next week, the first to go to trial.
At one point in the video, Berg addressed the camera.
"My name is Nick Berg. My father's name is Michael. My mother's name is Suzanne," he said while seated in a chair. "I have a brother and sister, David and Sara. I live in ... Philadelphia."
The video then showed Berg sitting on the floor, his hands tied behind his back, flanked by the masked men, as a statement was read in Arabic. Berg sat still during the statement, facing the camera, occasionally raising his shoulders.
The men said they had tried to trade him for prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
"For the mothers and wives of American soldiers, we tell you that we offered the U.S. administration to exchange this hostage for some of the detainees in Abu Ghraib, and they refused," one of the men read.
"So we tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls. You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins ... slaughtered in this way."
After the statement, the assailant directly behind Berg took a large knife from under his clothing while another pulled Berg onto his side. The video showed assailants thrusting the knife through his neck as a scream sounded before the men cut Berg's head off, repeatedly shouting "Allahu Akbar!" - or "God is great."
They then held the head up to the camera.
The video is of poor quality, and its time stamp seems to show an 11-hour lapse between when the assailants finish their statement and push Berg down, to when they behead him. That suggests a delay between those two portions of tape posted on the Web site.
The decapitation recalled the kidnapping and videotaped beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who like Berg was Jewish. Four Islamic militants have been convicted of kidnapping Pearl in 2002 in Pakistan, but seven suspects - including those who allegedly slit his throat - remain at large.
Last month, Iraqi militants also videotaped the killing of Italian hostage Fabrizio Quattrocchi.