Berg told friends Iraqi police mistook him for an Israeli spy
By Robert Moran
Knight Ridder Newspapers
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Nicholas Berg, the 26-year-old American whose videotaped decapitation was posted on the Internet, told friends here that Iraqi 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 al Fanar Hotel in central Baghdad, where Berg stayed until he checked out April 10 to return to the United States.
Berg apparently was taken hostage and then executed sometime before Saturday, when his headless body was discovered in a western suburb of Baghdad.
Why Berg was arrested, who held him, what happened to him after his release and what role his religion might have had in his death are key questions about the final days of the former Cornell University student with a penchant for travel to Third World countries.
Infante, 31, said Berg didn't seem particularly alarmed about his arrest and detention in the northern city of Mosul, where he apparently was held from March 25 to April 6. "He wasn't mad. It was adventure for him," Infante said, a view echoed by another friend, Andrew R. Duke, who said Berg shook off his detention.
"Basically his attitude it was all sort of fun, inconvenient," recalled Duke, 43, of Boulder, Colo.
The accounts of Berg's neighbors at the hotel where he lived as he pursued work in Iraq servicing communications towers provide the most detailed version to date of how the West Chester, Pa., native came to be in Iraqi police custody.
Infante said he last saw Berg on April 8 in the hotel's Internet cafe and that Berg told him he was leaving the country because business had declined. Berg talked about taking a plane from Baghdad to Jordan, Infante said.
Duke, who drank beer with Berg the night before he left, said Berg told him he'd made a lot of money and was thinking about going sailing in Turkey. He said he thought Berg was planning to leave the country by land.
"He was looking forward to going home," Duke said.
At the time Berg left the hotel, the road to Jordan was closed by U.S. forces and the road to Baghdad's airport frequently was attacked by insurgents.
State Department spokeswoman Kelly Shannon said a U.S. consular official in Iraq spoke with Berg on April 10 and offered to "assist him in departing Iraq by plane" for Jordan. She said Berg declined and said he planned to travel overland to Kuwait.
The FBI in Washington announced that it had opened an investigation into Berg's killing and acknowledged that its agents had interviewed Berg several times while he was in the custody of Iraqi police.
According to an FBI statement released in Washington, the U.S. military notified the bureau March 25 that an American was being held by Iraqi police. After several interviews with Berg and a visit to his parents' home in West Chester, the agents determined there was no reason for the Iraqis to detain him, the statement said.
It said the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. entity that governs Iraq, helped coordinate Berg's release April 6. Dan Senor, a coalition spokesman in Iraq, said Berg was never in coalition custody.
Infante said Berg had referred to his jailers as members of the coalition, but it wasn't clear who ran the facility where he held. Iraqi police report to the CPA.
Berg's father, Michael, has accused U.S. authorities of contributing to his death by allowing him to be detained after his scheduled departure date March 30, the day before the grisly killings of four American private-security contractors in Fallujah touched off violence that claimed more American lives in the next month than any other period since U.S. forces invaded.
Infante said Berg told him he was arrested in Mosul, where he'd gone looking for work, after he had been drinking beer and was "messing around" on the street. Berg didn't elaborate, Infante said.
Infante said Berg told him he was kept in a cell by himself, but that other prisoners were in the building. Infante said Berg thought most of those prisoners were Iranians and other non-Iraqis who'd been detained for crossing illegally into Iraq.
Infante and Duke said Berg told them that Iraqi police suspected he was an Israeli spy because of the stamp in his passport.
Iraqi police in Mosul couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday, and coalition authorities offered no information on the reason for Berg's detention.
Senor said the FBI visited Berg three times while he was being held to determine what he was doing in Iraq. He also was being monitored by U.S. military police to make sure he was being fed and treated well, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said.
(Moran reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)