US officer 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 include aiding the enemy.

Lieutenant-Colonel William Steele, the former commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment at Camp Cropper, a 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 having an inappropriate relationship with his interpreter.

Steele is the highest-ranking US officer to face a charge of aiding the enemy since Captain James Yee, a Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, was charged in September 2003. The army eventually dropped the case.

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

Prosecutor Captain Daniel Myers told the court that Steele had enjoyed a ''deeply personal and intimate relationship'' with interpreter Bahar Ahmed Suseyi and had openly favoured her over other interpreters.

Steele's wife Judith was present during the proceedings.

Every recess, she and her husband would talk quietly, with her resting her chin on his shoulder.

''The accused doesn't think rules apply to him. He doesn't follow orders,'' Myers said in his opening statement.

Myers said 17 CDs containing more than 102,000 documents, nearly 12,000 of them classified top secret, had been discovered in a search of Steele's living quarters.

DEFINING THE ENEMY 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.

Steele's defence counsel Captain Yolanda McCray said Steele was being punished for trying to treat detainees with dignity and respect.

''He wanted to ensure these individuals were treated with respect and improve the US image and win Iraqi hearts and minds ... Colonel Steele is charged, in effect, with operating a rehabilitation programme,'' she said.

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.

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.

The court martial continues tomorrow.

REUTERS CS BST0057

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