- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

BAGHDAD — It was morning, around 7 or 7:30, when the young American checked out of the Hotel Fanar, the receptionist recalls.

“Inshallah, I will be back in a few days,” he said. God willing, he would return to the shabby, $30-a-night hotel on Abu Nawas Street, with its stained carpets and noisy generator.

The American walked out the glass door. He had three or four bags; a member of the hotel staff put them on a cart, and together they walked a few hundred yards to Saadoun Street. But the U.S. Army had blocked the busy thoroughfare, and a soldier turned away the porter.

“I dumped the bags and turned back,” the porter says. The American walked on, toting his luggage, embarking upon the last stage of a naive and doomed odyssey through a nightmarish land.

The people who loved Nicholas Berg — who treasured his quirky enthusiasms, his quixotic drive to explore and understand faraway places, his wide-eyed intelligence — would never see him alive again. They would see, instead, his last, hellish moments captured by a video camera and displayed for all the world to watch on the Internet.

Some have suggested that Mr. Berg already was dead when he was decapitated on-camera, saying he did not flinch nor bleed much.

Only his murderers know what happened between April 10, when Mr. Berg walked out of the Hotel Fanar, and May 8, when his headless body was discovered near a highway overpass in western Baghdad. But even before he vanished, the last days and weeks of Mr. Berg’s Iraqi misadventure remain clouded — because officials in Washington and Iraq have provided contradictory accounts, and because Mr. Berg’s own freewheeling and fearless ways make it difficult to track his path.

It is telling, for example, that Mr. Berg walked away from the hotel to look for a taxi. In today’s Iraq, foreigners engage drivers. Using Iraqi taxis is a risk; you never know who is driving, or whether the stranger behind the wheel would come to your aid or even report the incident if anything bad happened.

“He never called us; he was always in a hurry,” said Adel Qatea, a driver at the hotel. “He wasn’t balanced. When we called out ‘taxi’ to him, he didn’t reply.”

Mr. Berg, said his friend Andrew Robert Duke, was “a tower guy.” He had come to Iraq to help fix a war-torn country’s communications system, and he thought nothing of propelling his muscular body up colossal ironwork to make some repairs.

“He didn’t have any fears,” said Mr. Duke, 50, a businessman who has been in Iraq since July. “He’s 26 years old, eager. If you climb a structure like a monkey and with a piece of screw in your hand, how much fear do you fear?”

The answer, clearly, is “not enough.”

He always had been that way. As a youth, he built a radio tower in his family’s back yard in West Chester, Pa. “That thing was taller than the trees,” said a neighbor, Bruce Hauser. He would climb it in the rain, Mr. Hauser said, because “when you are working on towers, you can’t predict what the weather is going to be.”

Nor had he ever shown fear of other cultures. He interrupted a peripatetic college career — he attended Cornell, Drexel, the University of Oklahoma and University of Pennsylvania — to go to Africa, where he taught villagers how to make bricks, and came home thinner because he shared his food stipend with five members of a family with whom he lived, his family said.

Outgoing and gregarious, he was gifted at electronics. He had “an incredible ability to take a tin can and a string and make a communications tower,” said Edwin Bukont, a radio engineer in Baltimore who was his friend and colleague.

His company was called Prometheus Methods Tower Service. He worked hard, 60 or 70 hours a week, with Led Zeppelin or other hard rock playing in the background.

He was a supporter of the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein. His brother David thinks he was the only member of the family who voted for George W. Bush. In December, he attended a two-day conference in Arlington on business opportunities in Iraq.

Mr. Berg e-mailed Aziz Taee, Philadelphia director of a group called the American-Iraqi Council, and said he wanted to do business in Iraq. Mr. Aziz agreed to give him some space in an office he had in Baghdad; they would form a partnership, seeking communications work.

In January, he went to Iraq.

He sent e-mail messages to friends and family. They represent a kind of techie travelogue, full of details about towers he had repaired, interrupted by accounts of his travels and encounters with the Iraqis.

He wrote of a “wicked sand storm last Tuesday, probably about three hours of really intense dust blowing around everywhere.” He told of being picked up in Diwaniya by Iraqi police, suspicious of a stranger walking around after dark with the equivalent of $20 in his pocket. He wrote about the culture, about what he saw.

He described climbing to the top of a tower in Shomali, in south-central Iraq, and watching farmers and donkeys from above.

“The air is clean, and when I’m climbing these towers I even get to go a few hours without some awkward ‘Americai?’ question.” The answer was usually “Sawa” — as you like, he wrote. “I have been taken for ‘Turkiye’ a few times, and this can be very handy as it shuts people up real quick, most Iraqis not speaking Turkish.”

Mr. Aziz said Mr. Berg traveled the country, examining and measuring towers and seeking subcontracts — unsuccessfully.

“He was very good, had a lot of confidence in what he did. When he realized he didn’t get a subcontract, he decided to go back to the United States” in February, Mr. Aziz said.

But one night before he left, as he walked down Saadoun Street, he was robbed. His notebook was in the bag that was stolen, along with all the measurements he had taken of the towers.

“I was always pressuring him to keep a low profile, but he ignored all my caution and advice,” Mr. Aziz said. “Berg kept a high profile, wandering around late at night or took public transport. Sometimes he got upset — looked at me in such a way, or said: ‘You’re not my dad’ or ‘I’m an adult, I can make my own decision.’”

The mugging did not deter him. He intended to return. He left some of his tools with Mr. Aziz, and left for home.

He came back in March. He stopped in to see Mr. Aziz, picked up his tools, and the two spent an hour climbing up tall buildings at Abu Ghraib, the site of the infamous prison. They re-recorded measurements lost with the stolen notebook.

The next day, Mr. Aziz said, Mr. Berg called to say that he was going to the northern city of Mosul, where the brother of Mr. Berg’s uncle lives.

“He invited me to go with him, but I declined because it was dangerous,” Mr. Aziz said.

What happened next is unclear. The Iraqi police chief denies that his forces in Mosul took Mr. Berg into custody; a U.S. consular official at first told Mr. Berg’s family that he was in U.S. custody, but officials in Washington later said she was misinformed.

According to Mr. Berg’s own account, in an e-mail sent to his family April 6, Iraqi police arrested him on March 24 and took him to American military police, who said they would perform a background check on Mr. Berg. A day later, they told Iraqi police they had no interest, but that the FBI would want to check him out.

He was put in an Iraqi police cell block with 70 petty criminals and what he called “war criminals.” Still, he found humor in it, later citing in an e-mail to his family the song “Alice’s Restaurant” — “I felt a bit like Arlo Guthrie walking into a cell full of [killers and rapists] as an accused litterbug.”

Because of “certain items in my stuff” — probably his tallit or Jewish prayer shawl, and perhaps his passport, which had an Israeli entry stamp — word had spread that he was an Israeli. Experienced travelers in the Arab world ask Israeli border officials not to stamp their passports.

“American MPs were pretty stand-up about the whole thing though. They heard the chants of Yehudien and Israelian, and told the IP staff to put me in my own cell,” which turned out to be the toilet, Mr. Berg wrote.

The Americans, Mr. Berg said, “had day-to-day control over me before they transferred me” to the Iraqi police cell.

The military denies it: “The military police did have contact with young Berg,” Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said at a briefing Friday. “They found out that he was in there. Being good, compassionate Americans, they checked in on him every once in a while, and said: ‘Do you need a toothbrush? Do you need some soap? Anything we can do to help you?’”

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said later that the Iraqis had detained Mr. Berg “for his own protection” because his behavior as a Westerner traveling alone had seemed unusual. The U.S. official said Mr. Berg, a Jew, had “anti-Semitic” texts in his possession. Mr. Berg told his parents that FBI agents had asked him about Iran because he was carrying some literature in Farsi and a book on Iran.

Mr. Berg told his family that U.S. federal agents questioned him about whether he had ever built a pipe bomb or had been in Iran. American officials said FBI agents saw Mr. Berg three times, and urged him to leave Iraq. It was too dangerous for him, they said.

He was released on April 6.

U.S. officials said they offered him a flight to Jordan, but he refused it. He later told friends and family that the route to the airport was too dangerous. He went back to Baghdad, and checked into Room 602.

Perhaps he was becoming more wary. He called Mr. Aziz, and warned him to keep a low profile, surprising his cautious colleague.

The evening of April 9, he had a few beers with his friend Mr. Duke. “He did talk about his plans … that he was a young man, he was single, hoping to find a young woman with whom he could have a child,” Mr. Duke recalled. He spoke of going to Turkey and doing some sailing there before returning home.

The next day, he vanished.

Mr. Aziz, though, said he heard from Mr. Berg one more time.

The morning he disappeared, Mr. Berg “surprised me by calling me at 9 or 10, to say that he found some friend to travel with to Jordan,” Mr. Aziz said.

Mr. Berg told him he was en route. Mr. Aziz doesn’t know with whom he was traveling or what kind of vehicle they were driving. “He said they were nice people. I told him to have a nice trip.”

Mr. Aziz said he understands that Mr. Berg’s phone was used as recently as April 19, and that three calls were made that day — to Jordan, to the United Arab Emirates and to a local number. “He could still have been alive.”

Mr. Berg’s family, citing a reference on the videotape of Mr. Berg’s beheading, wants to know whether the U.S. government received an offer to trade Iraqi prisoners for him. Distrustful of the Bush administration even before Nicholas Berg’s death, the Bergs suggest that U.S. officials bear some responsibility for what happened.

Although they acknowledge that Mr. Berg put himself in harm’s way, they don’t blame him.

“I’m sure that he only saw the good in his captors up until the last second of his life,” said his father, Michael. “He was not disrespectful of danger; he just didn’t recognize danger in people.”

AP reporter Jason Straziuso contributed to this story from West Chester, Pa.

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