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Details of Berg's detention remain unclear

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

CIA officials also said Thursday 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 murder 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 al-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 al-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 wasn't suspected of being linked with 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 kept in detention 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 Thursday that his son had once been questioned by the FBI because of the computer password, but he couldn't 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 discovered by American soldiers last Saturday. The grisly video of his beheading was posted on the Internet Tuesday.

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 originally were 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 apparently had been told via e-mail from a State Department consular officer that Berg was being held by the U.S. military.

State Department officials confirmed Thursday 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 Thursday. 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 west 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."

On Wednesday, Senor referred questions to Iraqi police in Mosul as to why Berg was arrested. "My understanding is they suspected that he was involved/engaged in suspicious activities," Senor said. Senor wasn't available to respond to questions Thursday.

However, the police chief of Mosul said Thursday that his department never arrested Berg. "Such reports are baseless," said Maj. Gen. Mohammed Khair al Barhawi.

But there was little doubt that the detention wasn't happenstance. Brig. Gen. Carter Ham said Thursday 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.

The friend, who asked not to be identified, said Berg told him that he hadn't been mistreated while under arrest. Berg also was allowed to make a telephone call, but it wasn't known to whom, the friend said.

A State Department spokeswoman 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.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said he has sent letters to the Defense Department and the Justice Department to get a chronology of events "of Mr. Berg's whereabouts and any interactions that those departments had or people from those departments had with him."

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(McCaffrey reported from Washington. Moran, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported from Baghdad. Contributing to this report were Warren Strobel and Steve Goldstein of The Philadelphia Inquirer in Washington.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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