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Top US officer at Iraq prison detained, charged - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – A top officer at a key U.S. military detention centre in Iraq has been charged with “aiding the enemy” and having improper relationships including one with the daughter of a detainee, the U.S. military said on Thursday.

Lieutenant-Colonel William Steele, the commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment, was in charge of the detention facilities at Camp Cropper near Baghdad international airport. “He has been in detention in Kuwait since last month pending an Article 32 hearing, which is a preliminary hearing where evidence will be presented to determine whether this should go to court-martial,” said U.S. military spokeswoman Lieutenant-Colonel Josslyn Aberle.

Saddam Hussein spent his final days at Cropper, which holds more than 3,000 detainees, before being executed last December.

Steele was accused of “aiding the enemy” by providing detainees with unmonitored mobile phones between October 2005 and October 2006, a U.S. military said in a statement. He was also charged with having an improper relationship with a translator and with the daughter of a detainee, as well as violating an order against keeping pornographic videos. The offences were alleged to have occurred between October 2005 and February 2007. “These charges are merely an accusation of wrongdoing. Lieutenant-Colonel Steele is presumed innocent unless and until he is proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of any alleged offence,” the military statement said.

Former senior members of Saddam regime are held at Cropper.

The camp was also made famous by media reports that said Saddam himself was detained there during his three years in prison. But the U.S. military confirmed for the first time on Thursday that he had been kept in another, secret facility and only visited the camp for medical check-ups. He stayed there in the days leading up to his execution on Dec. 30.

In fresh violence, a suicide car bomber killed nine Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint north of Baghdad in an area which U.S. forces described as a new battleground in the fight against insurgents and al Qaeda militants.

Police said the suicide bomber rammed his car into an Iraqi military checkpoint in the town of Khalis, 80 km (50 miles) from Baghdad. The blast also wounded 15 other people.

It was the third major attack this week in volatile Diyala province, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are engaged in fierce fighting with entrenched insurgents and al Qaeda militants as part of a security crackdown.

Tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops have been deployed in and around Baghdad since mid-February as part of the crackdown which is seen as a last-ditch attempt to stop all-out sectarian civil war in Iraq.

In Washington, the House of Representatives defied President George W. Bush’s threat of a veto and approved a bill providing new funds for the war while at the same time setting a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by March 31, 2008.

U.S. officials say the Baghdad crackdown is part of a plan to buy time for the government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reach political benchmarks aimed at reconciling warring communities so U.S. troops can eventually leave.

Maliki says U.S. troops will not leave until Iraqi security forces are ready to take over.

U.S. military officials said they had anticipated that the crackdown around the “Baghdad beltway” would force insurgents to focus their attacks outside the capital on areas like Diyala, which has a mixed population of Sunni Arabs and Shi’ites. “Diyala is one of the hotspots in Iraq right now, along with Baghdad and Anbar province, where much of the insurgents’ effort is going to,” said U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver. “Diyala has become a battleground.”

On Monday, nine U.S. soldiers were killed in an attack on a military outpost near Diyala’s capital Baquba, one of the worst ground strikes against U.S. forces since the 2003 invasion.

Two truck bombs and a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt killed three people and wounded 59 in the northern city of Mosul on Thursday, a local official said.