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Posted on Mon, May. 17, 2004

BERG MET WITH SHADY IRAQI




bunchw@phillynews.com

There's another strange new twist to the saga of Nick Berg and his final days of Iraq before his savage videotaped beheading.

Berg teamed up in Baghdad with an ex-Philadelphia man who led a controversial group of Iraqi expatriates encouraged by the U.S. government - even as he faced deportation for his role in Russian-emigre crime ring selling millions of vials used for crack.

Aziz Kadoory Aziz, also known as Aziz al-Taee, hooked up earlier this year with the 26-year-old West Chester man to start a small company called Shirikat Abraj Babil, or Babylon Towers Co., that would install, inspect and repair telecommunications and utility towers.

In interviews with several news organizations in Baghdad, Aziz claimed he may have been the last friend to speak with Berg before his kidnapping and beheading by terrorists possibly linked to the al Qaeda network. The radio-tower contractor had come back to Baghdad after a 13-day detainment in Mosul, only to disappear again on April 10.

Aziz said that on April 10 Berg "surprised me by calling me at 9 or 10, to say that he found some friend to travel with to Jordan." Berg said he was en route, but Aziz doesn't know who he was with or what kind of vehicle they were driving. "He said they were nice people. I told him to have a nice trip."

After living in Philadelphia for two decades, Aziz arrived in Baghdad sometime last year. A friend said he left for Iraq before the government moved on the deportation case.

Here in America, Aziz was the highly visible spokesman for a group he'd founded called the Iraqi American Council and appeared frequently on major media outlets like Fox News Channel calling for the military ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Aziz' outfront role also included speaking at pre-war, pro-troop rallies. It continued even after it was reported the inner-city electronic entrepreneur had pleaded guilty in the crack-vial case in 1994 and later had legal run-ins involving stolen computers and bootlegged CDs.

His partnership with Berg deepens the web of intrigue surrounding Berg's time in Iraq, his detainment by U.S.-backed authorities, his disapperance and his videotaped beheading by masked thugs claiming revenge for the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture.

Before traveling to Iraq twice this year, Berg had been investigated by the FBI because in 1999 - while at the University of Oklahoma - an associate of jailed Sept. 11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui had obtained Berg's e-mail password.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said Berg was cleared in that probe, but the apparent coincidence may have prolonged the Mosul detainment of Berg, who was interviewed three times by FBI agents before he was released on April 6.

Officials have told the Daily News that Berg also aroused suspicion because he was an unescorted American carrying a copy of the Koran and what they called "anti-Semitic" literature. Berg, who is Jewish, also told friends that his passport contained an Israel visitor's stamp.

Now, add the name of Aziz K. Aziz to Berg's strange Iraqi odyssey. Efforts to contact Aziz in Baghdad by phone and e-mail over the weekend were unsuccessful.

Aziz told the Associated Press that Berg had contacted him by e-mail sometime after attending a two-day conference in Virginia on business opportunities in Iraq last December. Aziz agreed to give him some space in an office he had in Baghdad to form a partnership seeking communications work.

Berg refers to Aziz in an e-mail to friends on Jan. 18. "I've found a fairly competent and reliable office manager," he wrote. "He's actually been living in Philadelphia the last 20 years and just came back - so he's similarly out of his element."

Berg's first efforts to win radio-tower repair work were unsuccessful, and he was robbed on the streets of Baghdad.

"I was always pressuring him to keep a low profile, but he ignored all my caution and advice," Aziz said. "Berg kept a high profile, wandering around late at night or took public transport. Sometimes he got upset, looked at me in such a way, or said, 'You're not my dad' or 'I'm an adult, I can make my own decision." "

Aziz said that Berg left his equipment with him during a short trip back to the U.S. When he came back, the two spent an hour climbing tall buildings at Abu Ghraib, site of the infamous prison. Aziz said they re-recorded measurements that were in his stolen notebook.

The next day, Aziz said, Berg called to say that he was going to the northern city of Mosul, where the brother of Berg's uncle lives. "He invited me to go with him, but I declined because it was dangerous," said Aziz.

It's not known whether Aziz ever told Berg of his controversial past.

In 1993, about a decade after fleeing Saddam's Iraq for America, Aziz was in the electronics business when he was one of 25 people charged with distributing some 100 million crack vials on the East Coat. Prosecutors said that Aziz, who lived in Northeast Philadelphia, was tied to a network run by a Soviet immigrant named Valery Sigal. Most in the ring were immigrants from Russia or the former Eastern Bloc.

Aziz claimed he didn't know the vials were going to drug dealers. but he pled guilty. He was sentenced to three years of probation, fined $3,000, and forced to forfeit $17,673 in profits.

He was arrested again in May 2001, on charges that the chain of electronics stores he owns in Philadelphia was selling counterfeited compact discs. A judge dismissed that case for lack of evidence last March. The Inquirer also reported he received probation in a 1997 case for selling stolen computers to undercover cops. Current records show he owns a cell-phone firm called Page One Communications with a number of outlets in Philadelphia.

Aziz went by several names in Philadelphia. Sometimes called "Joe Aziz," he started calling himself Aziz al-Taee in the late 1990s, around the time he formed the Iraqi American Council. He said al-Taee was his tribal name and - in speaking out against Saddam - he was worried about relatives in Baghdad.

The group has an address in Washington's Virginia suburbs and a national board of directors, but there were differing claims of how many members or how much clout the group really had.

In December 2002, another key member of the Iraqi American Council - a California engineer named Bassam Ridha Al-Hulsaini - was reportedly one of 15 Iraqis flown to Washington by the State Department for two days of "media training" under a project known as Future of Iraq. A couple of months later, al-Hulsaini addressed a "pro-troops" rally in San Francisco, declaring that "The Iraq people are waiting for this liberation."

It's not clear whether Aziz received "media training," but the handsome, nattily dressed ex-pat, now 40, probably didn't need it. He addressed similar rallies in Valley Forge, St. Louis and Washington, where he claimed Hussein's henchmen killed both his cousin and brother-in-law. The rallies were launched by Clear Channel syndicated talk-radio host Glenn Beck, and the media giant sponsored many of them.

A friend and fellow council member - Ahmad Kuba of Florida - said yesterday that Aziz left for Baghdad last summer, before any deportation proceedings began.

"There are no cell phones in Iraq," Aziz told a reporter in May 2003. "That's the way to the future."

Now, Aziz is now getting publicity for monitoring the final cell-phone calls of his slain partner. He said this weekend he understands Berg's phone was used as recently as April 19, and that three calls were made that day to Jordan, to the United Arab Emirates and to a local number.

"He could still have been alive."


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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