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Berg beheading: No way, say medical experts
By Ritt Goldstein

American businessman Nicholas Berg's body was found on May 8 near a Baghdad overpass; a video of his supposed decapitation death by knife appeared on an alleged al-Qaeda-linked website (www.al-ansar.biz) on May 11. But according to what both a leading surgical authority and a noted forensic death expert separately told Asia Times Online, the video depicting the decapitation appears to have been staged.

"I certainly would need to be convinced it [the decapitation video] was authentic," Dr John Simpson, executive director for surgical affairs at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, said from New Zealand. Echoing Dr Simpson's criticism, when this journalist asked forensic death expert Jon Nordby, PhD and fellow of the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, whether he believed the Berg decapitation video had been "staged", Nordby replied: "Yes, I think that's the best explanation of it."

Questions of when the video's footage was taken, and the time elapsed between the shooting of the video's segments, were raised by both experts, reflecting a portion of the broader and ongoing video controversy. Nordby, speaking to Asia Times Online from Washington state, noted: "We don't know how much time wasn't filmed," adding that "there's no way of knowing whether ... footage is contemporaneous with the footage that follows".

While the circumstances surrounding both the video and Nick Berg's last days have been the source of substantive speculation, both Simpson and Nordby perceived it as highly probable that Berg had died some time prior to his decapitation. A factor in this was an apparent lack of the "massive" arterial bleeding such an act initiates.

"I would have thought that all the people in the vicinity would have been covered in blood, in a matter of seconds ... if it was genuine," said Simpson. Notably, the act's perpetrators appeared far from so. And separately Nordby observed: "I think that by the time they're ... on his head, he's already dead."

Providing another basis for their findings, in the course of such an assault, an individual's autonomic nervous system would react, typically doing so strongly, with the body shaking and jerking accordingly. And while Nordby noted that "they rotated and moved the head", shifting vertebrae that should have initiated such actions, Simpson said he "certainly didn't perceive any movements at all" in response to such efforts.

During the period when Berg's captors filmed the decapitation sequence, circumstances indicate that he had already been dead "a quite uncertain length of time, but more than ... however long the beheading took", Simpson stated. Both Simpson and Nordby also noted the difficulty in providing analysis based on the video, the inherent limitations presented by this. But both also felt that Berg had seemed drugged.

A particularly significant point in the video sequence occurred as Berg's captors attacked him, bringing the supposedly fatal knife to bear. "The way that they pulled him over, they could have used a dummy at that point," reflected Simpson regarding what the video portrayed. Separately, Nordby said Berg does not "appear to register any sort of surprise or any change in his facial expression when he's grabbed and twisted over, and they start to bring this weapon into use".

Subsequently, Nordby said it was likely that the filming sequence was manipulated at the point immediately preceding this, allowing Berg's corpse to be used for the decapitation sequence. Nordby also emphasized that the video "raises more questions than it answers", with the most fundamental questions of "who are you, and how did you die", being impossible to answer from it. But broad speculation exists regarding a number of factors surrounding both Berg's death and the video, and its timing in regard to revelations of US prison atrocities.

In a May 13 article, the Arabic newsgroup Aljazeera reported that a Dubai-based Reuters journalist first broke the story, "but while Fox News, CNN and the BBC" were able to secure the video from the "Arabic-only website" that hosted it, Aljazeera was unable to locate it. And also on May 13, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the US Central Intelligence Agency had determined that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the individual who beheaded Berg.

Since Secretary of State Colin Powell's United Nations presentation of February 5, 2003, al-Zarqawi has been portrayed as the single most dangerous element facing the Bush administration's "war on terror". Powell's UN presentation has since been widely accepted as empty; nevertheless, al-Zarqawi appears to have surpassed even Osama bin Laden as the administration's No 1 terror target. And on May 15, Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt, the Coalition Provisional Authority's chief Iraq military spokesman, declared that al-Zarqawi will be eventually caught, though that may prove particularly difficult.

On March 4, Brigadier-General David Rodriguez of the Joint Chiefs of staff revealed that the Pentagon didn't have "direct evidence of whether he's [al-Zarqawi] alive or dead", providing commentary on the nature of prior "evidence" linking al-Zarqawi to attacks and bombings. But that same day, AP reported that an Iraqi resistance group claimed al-Zarqawi had been killed the April prior in the US bombing of northern Iraq.

Speaking off the record, intelligence community sources have previously said they believe it "very likely" that al-Zarqawi is indeed long dead. Such a fact makes al-Zarqawi's alleged killing of Berg difficult to reconcile, and there has been broad speculation that blaming al-Zarqawi is an administration ploy. Further anomalies surrounding Berg's death have fueled added speculation.

According to e-mails sent from a US consular officer in Baghdad, Beth Payne, to the Berg family, Nick Berg was being held in Iraq "by the US military in Mosul". A May 13 AP report notes that a US State Department spokesperson subsequently said this was untrue, an error, and that Berg was being held by Iraqi authorities. But another May 13 AP report quoted "police chief Major-General Mohammed Khair al-Barhawi" as claiming that reports of Iraqi police having held Berg were "baseless".

And Berg is seen on the beheading videotape in what appears to be US military prison-issue clothing, sitting in what appears to be a US military-type white chair, virtually identical to those photographed as used at Abu Ghraib prison. However, the taking of hostages has occurred in the region, and beheadings are not unheard of.

According to a February 2003 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), on September 23, 2001, radical Islamists captured a group of 25 Kurdish fighters in the Iraqi village of Kheli Hama. "Some prisoners' throats had been slit, while others had been beheaded," HRW reported, noting that the television station KurdSat had broadcast pictures of the dead that September 26. The report also noted that a videotape "apparently filmed" by those committing the atrocities had been found.

The strict Islamist community in Iraq denied that the acts were committed by their people, stating that the incident was fabricated.

Additional reports of beheadings also exist, with the victims usually noted as killed with a bullet before the beheading occurs. But HRW's report also raised an issue that the Berg video's makers, and Berg's father, both raised: prisoner exchange.

HRW noted that Iraq's radical Islamists did pursue exchanges of captives, and the Berg video specifically noted that his captors claimed they were killing him as their attempts to exchange Berg had been rebuffed by US authorities. Berg's father, Michael, has pressed the administration of US President George W Bush as regards what the facts of this allegation are, with the administration denying any knowledge that such a trade was offered. And added questions still exist.

Because Iraq's radical Islamists speak in a particular manner, and live by a closely proscribed code, apparent contradictions between these ways and the way Berg's captors appeared has generated speculation. Some observers have speculated on the possibility that the individuals weren't native Arabic speakers. Conversely, it is reported that in Saudi Arabia, where Sharia law allows for beheadings in cases of severe crimes, the condemned is heavily drugged with tranquilizers prior to the execution, reportedly leaving them in a state similar to that which Berg appeared in during parts of the video.

Again, Nordby emphasized that the video "raises more questions than it answers".

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist based in Stockholm. His work has appeared in broadsheets such as Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, Spain's El Mundo and Denmark's Politiken, as well as with the Inter Press Service (IPS), a global news agency.

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May 22, 2004



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