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U.S. may charge alleged 9/11 leader with the death of Daniel Pearl

U.S. military officials intend to charge Guantanamo Bay captive Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, according to a Time magazine report.

U.S. officials have identified Mohammed as the al Qaida mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and President Bush has said he's a likely candidate for a war-crimes trial.

But the Pentagon's chief war-crimes prosecutor told The Miami Herald on Friday that the Time report may be premature; prosecutors are still studying the case files of Mohammed and 13 other so-called high-value detainees who were turned over to the military by the CIA.

Captured in Pakistan in March 2003, Mohammed had been held in secret CIA detention until his Labor Day transfer to the Guantanamo detention center at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

On Thursday, Time posted an item on its Web site reporting that administration officials want to charge Mohammed with Pearl's January 2002 murder, in which Pearl's throat was slit. The killing was captured on a grisly videotape.

"One former U.S. national security official tells Time there is no doubt that KSM personally wielded the knife that killed the Wall Street Journal reporter," the report said.

Military intelligence circles refer to Mohammed, a U.S.-educated, Kuwait-born Pakistani, as KSM, a nom de guerre of sorts that Bush himself adopted in revealing Mohammed's transfer to Guantanamo on Sept. 6.

If charged and tried before the administration's new, redesigned military commissions, Mohammed would be the most senior al Qaida figure to face trial.

Unclear is whether future prosecutions would include charges of conspiracy, which had been challenged as unconstitutional in the first effort to try 10 alleged al Qaida co-conspirators already at Guantanamo.

A Pearl murder charge would allege a specific act and identify a high-profile victim, a scenario the chief Pentagon prosecutor said hadn't yet been considered.

"I at this point in time certainly can't say that," said Air Force Col. Moe Davis, whose earlier prosecutions were upended in June by a Supreme Court decision that struck down the previous military commission format.

Pentagon attorneys are presently drawing up new rules by which new commissions would be staged, though probably not until next year.

Moreover, the latest arrivals at Guantanamo, including Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaydah, other alleged al Qaida plotters, have yet to go through basic military review panels to confirm that they're "enemy combatants."

Davis said he was surprised by the Time report on plans to try Mohammed for the Pearl murder and said was definitely not the source of it.

"Ultimately if he was to be prosecuted in a military commission, it would be up to this office to draft the charges," he said in a telephone interview. "But it is way too early to be making any decision on not just him, but any of the 14.

"We haven't scratched the surface deep enough to make any decisions on that."

Time doesn't name its source but attributed to "national security officials" the detail that Mohammed admitted under interrogation to having killed Pearl, "admitting without remorse that he personally severed Pearl's head and telling interrogators he had to switch knives after the first one `got dull.'"

The magazine also reported that it compared the hands seen on the videotape executing Pearl to Mohammed's hands and confirmed it was him. It did not elaborate.

Mohammed has been identified as a 1986 graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and is reportedly fluent in Arabic, English and Urdu.

Mohammed, who's about 40, has no lawyer and hasn't been seen publicly since his capture, although he and the other 13 detainees recently met with Red Cross delegates and have been registered as U.S.-held prisoners for the first time in up to four years of captivity at an undisclosed location.

Pearl, a Stanford University graduate who was 38 when he was killed, disappeared while on assignment in Pakistan in January 2002, pursuing an article about Islamic extremism.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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