US army officer in Iraq accused of aiding al Qaeda

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BAGHDAD, Oct 19 (Reuters) A senior US army officer in Iraq faced court martial accusations today of aiding al Qaeda and illegally possessing secret documents that could have been used ''to the injury of the United States''.

Lieutenant-Colonel William Steele, 52, is a former military police commander at Camp Cropper, a US detention facility near Baghdad airport where he oversaw the detention of Saddam Hussein in the days before the Iraqi leader's execution on December. 30.

''Lieutenant-Colonel Steele aided the enemy, al Qaeda in Iraq is the enemy, there's no question,'' prosecutor Captain Michael Rizzotti told the final day of Steele's court martial at Camp Liberty, a US military base near the airport.

Steele is charged with aiding the enemy, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, illegally possessing classified information and maintaining an inappropriate relationship with a woman interpreter.

He 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.

Steele is accused of allowing detainees at Cropper to use his mobile phone. His defence team argues that he did this as a humanitarian gesture. Steele himself has opted not to testify.

''He did have interaction with detainees, treating them with dignity and respect. Let's not confuse that with sympathising with the enemy,'' defence counsel Major David Barrett said in his closing argument.

INTIMATE EMAILS Rizzotti said Steele had allowed an al Qaeda detainee, identified only as ISN 2184, ''responsible for hundreds of deaths of coalition forces'' to make a five-minute unmonitored telephone call in Arabic.

''We'll never know who was called, we'll never know what was said. ... It's the equivalent of putting an AK-47 in his hand.

He aided the enemy,'' he said.

''Did he do it once? Did he do it twice? Nine soldiers saw him do this.'' Prosecutor Rizzotti said nearly 12,000 secret documents had also been found in a search of Steele's living quarters in Camp Victory, the main US base in Baghdad.

''(They were) documents that if fallen into the wrong hands could be used to the injury of the United States or the advantage of a foreign nation. He did not get authority to take these documents,'' he said.

Much of the trial was held in closed session because of the sensitive nature of the documents, but reporters were given a glimpse of one which contained aerial photographs of Kandahar airbase and Bagram airfield in Afghanistan.

The court also heard how Steele sent intimate emails to his interpreter Bahar al-Suseyi, including one saying ''there are a few things I need to do with you/to you'' and planned to take her with him on a trip to Qatar.

Rizzotti said it was inappropriate behaviour for the married camp commander, whose wife Judith has been attending the sessions. It is still unclear what sentence Steele faces on this charge if he is found guilty.

REUTERS ARB RK1541

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