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U.S. Officer Acquitted Of Aiding Enemy

Soldier over a U.S. flag with a gavel
AP
A former U.S. commander at the jail that held Saddam Hussein was acquitted Friday of aiding the enemy by loaning an unmonitored cell phone to an inmate, but a military judge convicted him of three lesser charges.

Lt. Col. William H. Steele, 52, had faced a life sentence if convicted of accusations he allowed high-ranking former regime prisoners use of his cell phone for unmonitored calls.

The judge, Lt. Col. Timothy Grammel, found him not guilty of that charge but convicted him of unauthorized possession of classified documents, behavior unbecoming an officer for an inappropriate relationship with an interpreter, and failing to obey an order.

Witnesses were then called to testify before a sentence was to be announced.

The prosecution had argued that Steele had a history of flouting the rules and claimed he loaned an al Qaeda-linked inmate an unmonitored cell phone, despite rules that inmate calls should be arranged in advance and conducted with an interpreter present.

"You heard in this courtroom, in a closed session, that he handed detainee number 2184, an al Qaeda member in Iraq, his personal cell phone and allowed a five-minute conversation. It was the equivalent of putting an AK-47 in his hands," prosecutor Capt. Michael Rizzotti said.

"All it takes is a phone call, and if that detainee can communicate with someone outside, that can put soldiers of the United States at risk," Rizzotti said. "The second he handed over that phone for an unmonitored phone call, in Arabic, that is the second he aided the enemy."

Defense attorney Maj. David Barrett denied that Steele ever provided a cell phone for an unmonitored conversation and said his client was doing his job by treating the detainees in a humane fashion.

"Long after we leave Iraq, and we will leave it, what will be left? It's the impression of the soldiers that will really matter," Barrett said. "Lt. Col. Steele treated the detainees with dignity and respect. Let's not confuse that with sympathy for the enemy."

Barrett also said Steele's storage of classified documents was an "honest mistake" and he argued that the defendant's relationship with an interpreter did not constitute behavior unbecoming an officer.

Steele, an Army reservist from Prince George, Va., chose not to testify in his own defense in the first court-martial on charges of aiding the enemy since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Much of the trial was held behind closed doors when officials said classified information was discussed.

The only other U.S. officer known to have been accused of collaborating with the enemy since the 2003 start of the war was Capt. James J. Yee, a Muslim chaplain who was linked to a possible espionage ring at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison. He was eventually cleared and given an honorable discharge.

Steele has already pleaded guilty to three other charges - including wrongfully storing and improperly handling classified information and possession of pornographic videos - which carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison, forfeiture of pay and dismissal from the Army.

He also could face additional maximum sentences of 10 years for unauthorized possession of classified information, six months for failing to obey an order and possibly a year for conduct unbecoming an officer, officials said.

In other developments:

  • A House Democrat accused Republicans Thursday of sending troops to Iraq to "get their heads blown off for the president's amusement." The outburst from Rep. Pete Stark as the House debated a children's health bill drew immediate condemnation from Republicans who demanded he retract it.
  • A U.S. State Department review of private security guards for diplomats in Iraq is unlikely to recommend firing Blackwater USA over the deaths of 17 Iraqis last month, but the company probably is on the way out of that job, U.S. officials said. Blackwater's work escorting U.S. diplomats outside the protected Green Zone in Baghdad expires in May, one official said Wednesday, and reports indicate they expect the North Carolina company will not continue to work for the embassy after that. Iraq's government is demanding $8 million compensation for each of the 17 people reportedly killed and is demanding that Blackwater be expelled from the country within six months.
  • President Vladimir Putin, in his latest jab at Washington, suggested Thursday that the U.S. military campaign in Iraq was a "pointless" battle against the Iraqi people, aimed in part at seizing the country's oil reserves. He called Iraq a "small country that can hardly defend itself and which possesses huge oil reserves. And we see what's going on there. They've learned to shoot there, but they are not managing to bring order," he said. "One can wipe off a political map some tyrannical regime ... but it's absolutely pointless to fight with a people," he said. "Russia, thank God, isn't Iraq."
  • The United States has dispatched various provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Iraq and Afghanistan to teach, coach and mentor Iraqis in towns and provinces. Staffed mostly by civilian officials, with the military providing security, the teams show promise but with an effectiveness that is difficult to judge because the needs vary greatly from province to province. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction concluded in a new report Thursday that the teams are making "incremental progress" but require "years of steady engagement."