- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

BAGHDAD — Nicholas Berg told friends before his abduction and death that he had been arrested by Iraqi police because he had an Israeli stamp in his passport and had been held at a U.S. army base for almost two weeks.

He spoke, however, of having been well-treated and seemed to look at his incarceration along with several foreign insurgents as part an adventure, said a journalist who knew him.

On Wednesday, U.S. officials said Iraqi police had detained Mr. Berg on March 24 for “suspicious activities.” Although acknowledging they knew Mr. Berg was in custody, American officials denied he was ever in U.S. hands.

Hugo Infante, a free-lance photographer employed by United Press International, said he met Mr. Berg on March 19 while both were staying at the same Baghdad hotel, the Al-Fanar.

Mr. Berg, a self-employed telecommunications contractor, checked out of the hotel on April 10 and was not seen again until his decapitated body was found in Baghdad on Saturday.

A group linked to al Qaeda released a videotape of his killing.

“I spoke with him every day before he left for Mosul,” Mr. Infante said. “He was going there because he wanted to make some kind of deal, but didn’t say with whom. He … didn’t show up for two weeks, but we didn’t worry too much because things were cool in Iraq then.

“Then I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel watching television and suddenly he walked in carrying a six-pack of bottled water, this was about April 6,” Mr. Infante recalls.

“He looks at me and says, ‘You want to hear a funny story?’ He said he was in Mosul and was stopped by Iraqi police who demanded his papers. When they saw he had an Israeli stamp in his passport and had a Jewish last name, he said, they arrested him for being a spy.

“Nick told me that he was held for a few hours by the police and then taken to a U.S. military base and held for almost two weeks by the U.S. military. He repeatedly said he was held in the [Coalition Provisional Authority] jail in Mosul for two weeks,” Mr. Infante said.

Several other guests at the hotel — who asked that their names not be used — reported hearing the same account from Mr. Berg.

Mr. Berg told Mr. Infante that he had been well-treated while held by U.S. forces and that he was not angry about the detention.

“The U.S. soldiers treated him in a good way, but he said he was held with Syrians, Iranians, Egyptians and others who had been caught trying to sneak into Iraq,” Mr. Infante said.

“He said it was just bad luck and he seemed like it was just part of the adventure. He was a very cool guy. On the day they let him go, the soldiers came and said, ‘We are very sorry, you are free to go.’”

CPA officials and the FBI have acknowledged that Mr. Berg was questioned in Mosul by the bureau and that its agents had interviewed his family in Pennsylvania before he was released.

The Al-Fanar Hotel is popular among free-lancers and small-business representatives because of its clean rooms and cheap nightly rates of about $30.

The hotel staff said Mr. Berg checked out on April 10 and told them he was leaving Iraq, but it was unclear whether he intended to fly out via Baghdad’s airport or drive to Amman, Jordan.

The road to Amman, which passes through the restive cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, was the scene of numerous kidnappings at the time, but Mr. Infante was under the impression that Mr. Berg intended to fly.

Mr. Infante said Mr. Berg often drove around Baghdad and surrounding areas alone or with a taxi driver, and that he seemed too trusting of strangers to properly protect himself in a place like Iraq.

“He was very cool with Iraqis and the country, he really loved the Iraqi people,” Mr. Infante said. “He was too trusting and thought that because he wasn’t doing bad stuff here that he wouldn’t get into trouble.”

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