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Berg was investigated for links to terrorism, Ashcroft says

WASHINGTON—Attorney General John Ashcroft said Friday that FBI agents investigated slain American Nicholas Berg for ties to terrorism, but found no such links.

Ashcroft's remarks came a day after other officials revealed that Berg was held for nearly two weeks in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to give FBI agents time to investigate a possible link between the murdered 26-year-old and accused Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. FBI agents had interviewed Berg in 2002 after an e-mail address he'd used was traced to Moussaoui.

"The suggestion that Mr. Berg was in some way involved in terrorist activity or may have been linked, in some way involved, in terrorist activity is a suggestion that we do not have any ability to support, and we do not believe is a valid one," Ashcroft told reporters on Friday.

Berg's grisly beheading by masked Islamic extremists was captured on videotape and shown on a Web site associated with the al-Qaida terrorist network. The CIA has since concluded from analyzing voice patterns in the video that he was killed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian who remains in contact with al-Qaida. Berg's killers said they were taking revenge for the American military's mistreatment of Iraqi detainees in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

In Iraq, military officials continued to insist that Berg was held by Iraqi police—not by the U.S. military—but acknowledged that the FBI had ordered his continued detention and that American military police had visited him during his detention.

Berg's family has insisted that he was held in U.S. custody and his detention prevented him from catching a scheduled flight home from Jordan on March 30. Berg was released on April 6. By that time, the violent insurgency in portions of Iraq had made the road to Jordan too dangerous to travel.

Lt. Col. Joseph Piek of Task Force Olympia, based at Ft. Lewis, Wash., said Iraqi police detained Berg because he was "an American traveling by himself in Iraq without documentation."

"The FBI asked the police to detain him so they could determine who he was and what his circumstances were for being in Iraq," Piek said in an e-mail message.

Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the senior military spokesman in Iraq, confirmed that the FBI had requested that Berg be held until agents could verify his identity.

The FBI interviewed Berg while he was in Iraqi custody on March 25. During that interview, Berg said he'd been questioned in 2002 in the Moussaoui case. The FBI then sought time to investigate the connection before he was released.

Kimmitt, the deputy commander of military operations in Iraq, said the U.S. military had limited contact with Berg during his captivity and that he remained in Iraqi custody. He said the Americans occasionally asked him whether he needed things such as a toothbrush or soap.

"They found out that he was in there and being good, compassionate Americans, they checked in on him every once in a while," Kimmitt said. "That is, from our understanding, the only contact that Nicholas Berg had with American military forces during that 12-day time period."

Berg was last seen leaving his Baghdad hotel on April 10. His headless body was found on May 8 on a highway overpass in the Iraqi capital.

Ashcroft pledged Friday that the Justice Department would hunt down Berg's killers. The FBI is leading the probe.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Robert Moran and Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from Baghdad.)


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