US officer goes on trial in Iraq for "aiding enemy"

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BAGHDAD, Oct 15 (Reuters) The former head of a US detention facility in Iraq that held Saddam Hussein before his execution went on trial today, facing life imprisonment for charges that included aiding the enemy.

Lieutenant-Colonel William Steele, the former commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment at Camp Cropper, the detention facility near Baghdad airport, pleaded guilty to three of the seven charges at a pre-trial session on October 7.

The most serious charge he still faces is that of aiding the enemy. He is accused of providing an unmonitored mobile phone to detainees. The other charges are failing to obey an order, unauthorised possession of classified information and maintaining an inappropriate relationship with his interpreter.

At his court martial today, Steele, who has been in custody in Kuwait since his arrest, sat quietly in army uniform between his defence counsel in the pine-panelled courtroom in Camp Liberty, a US military base near the airport.

The defence sought a motion to dismiss the charge of aiding the enemy, arguing that giving a mobile phone to detainees did not fall into the legal definition of supplying ''arms, munitions, money and other things''.

The presiding judge, Lieutenant-Colonel Timothy Grammel, denied the request but said the prosecution must prove that the detainees Steele was helping qualified as ''enemies'' and not former enemies.

Grammel dismissed as vague an attempt by the prosecutors to justify the charge on the basis of a speech by US President George W Bush, but they will still be allowed further opportunities to make their case.

At his pre-trial hearing, Steele pleaded guilty to wrongfully storing classified information in his quarters, improperly marking classified information and possession of pornography, which carry a maximum sentence of two years' each.

In June military prosecutors dismissed charges alleging he had an inappropriate relationship with the daughter of a detainee.

At a preliminary hearing in May to determine whether a court martial should be held, the court heard how Steele had expensed the purchase of Cuban cigars and hair dye for Saddam, before his execution for crimes against humanity on December 30.

Camp Cropper houses about 3,000 inmates, including other former high-ranking members of Saddam's government.

Reuters SKB GC1628

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