The story of Nick Berg - a tale that haunts America

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The Independent US

Nick Berg liked to play the saxophone. When he was at high school he was a member of the marching band and neighbours would hear him practising in the evenings at his parents' house, the music seeping out through the walls.

Nick Berg liked to play the saxophone. When he was at high school he was a member of the marching band and neighbours would hear him practising in the evenings at his parents' house, the music seeping out through the walls.

He was a friendly young man. His friends said he had an independent spirit. The 26-year-old liked science and he liked to travel. When he was at college he went to Ghana and helped build houses out of mud, returning home considerably thinner and with his pockets empty because he gave away most of his money. Now Mr Berg is dead, murdered in the most terrible way in a place thousands of miles from his home and light years away from the life that he led in the Philadelphia suburbs.

His family is heartbroken while his friends and neighbours, probably along with every other American, are sickened to the core. "It's a very sombre mood," said one neighbour, Janet Conrad, yesterday. "He was very well liked. It's an unbelievable tragedy."

Mr Berg was beheaded in Iraq by extremists apparently closely linked to the senior al-Qa'ida operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who took him hostage and then made a video of his execution which they posted on to an internet website. In a statement they read out before sawing off Mr Berg's head with a knife, the five masked men claimed they were killing the self-employed telecommunications engineer in revenge for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US troops at Abu Ghraib prison. It is not certain whether Zarqawi, on whose head there is a $10m (£6m) reward, was among the killers.

Mr Berg's body - discovered dumped next to a road in Baghdad last Saturday - was due to be returned to the US last night or later today. But for many Americans, the coffin being flown to Dover Air Force base in Delaware will be bringing home not just the young man's remains but also the visceral horror of the war and the ongoing occupation by US forces.

"I was adamantly opposed to the war," admitted another of the Bergs' neighbours, who asked not to be named. "But here it is."

One senses that Mr Berg's murder has shocked America in a way perhaps more powerful even than the 700 US soldiers who have been killed in prosecuting President Bush's mission to oust Saddam Hussein. He, after all, was not a soldier but a communications engineer who had travelled to Iraq independently to try to secure contracts to repair radio antennas - another thing he used to practise in the back garden of his parents' home in West Whiteland, Pennsylvania.

He had supported the war and wanted to help rebuild Iraq, said his father, Michael, a retired schoolteacher, who was opposed to the invasion. "He's a helping guy," Mr Berg Snr told reporters: "He looked at it as bringing democracy to a country that didn't have it."

The brutality of Mr Berg's murder and very public way in which he was killed has stunned America and horrified his family, who collapsed sobbing when they learnt of the video's existence. While newspapers declined to print the most graphic of the images, they were available on websites such as the Drudge Report, where the execution, complete with Mr Berg's screams as the knife was placed to his throat, could be viewed.

One could argue that the pictures of Iraqi hospitals full of children maimed and killed by American and British cluster bombs are, in their own way, equally horrific, but that would miss the point.

Most Americans - even here in the middle-class suburbs of Philadelphia - never see, or never choose to see, images that portray the horror the war has wreaked on Iraqi civilians. But thanks to the same digital technology that ensured the pictures of the abuse at Abu Ghraib were dispatched around the world, Mr Berg's five killers carried out what was, in effect, a public execution.

As a result, the image of Mr Berg, wearing an orange jump suit and bound to a chair shortly before he was beheaded, will probably become as much a fixture of the iconography of Mr Bush's so-called war on terror as the photograph of the Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl shortly before he was beheaded by an al-Qa'ida gang in Pakistan in 2002.

"I just do not want to see those pictures," said Susan Mattern, 32, who used to catch the school bus with Mr Berg's brother and sister, and who organised a candlelit vigil of prayers and remembrance outside the family home on Tuesday night. She said: "There was nothing we could do. I just rang some people so that we could show our support. I know that if I was in their position I would want some support. I am so upset by what has happened. Yesterday I think I was in shock because it was so close to home but today it has really hit me.

"I just think that now we need to get the hell out of there. If they want to kill each other then let them."

While the US authorities have vowed to find Mr Berg's killers, his friends and family are also demanding an explanation as to what happened to him in Iraq after he was detained in early March by Iraqi police in the city of Mosul, who apparently questioned the authenticity of some of the documents he was carrying.

Mr Berg's father said that his son had told him in a telephone call he had been handed over to the US authorities who held him for 13 days without access to a lawyer and that he was questioned about what he was doing in Iraq. His family filed a lawsuit in the federal court in Philadelphia on 5 April asserting that he was being held by the military in violation of his civil rights. A day later, he was released.

He told his parents that the State Department had been unable to get him a flight home and that he was seeking instead to return overland. They last heard from him on 9 April.

A US spokesman in Baghdad said yesterday that Mr Berg had never been in American custody but that the US authorities had helped secure his release from the police cell. The spokesman said Mr Berg had been warned that it was unsafe in Iraq and that he should leave.

It is not clear where or when Mr Berg was kidnapped or killed but analysis of the videotape suggested there was a gap of several hours between the time the masked men read their statement and when he was actually beheaded.

It is impossible to predict the effect Mr Berg's execution will have on US public opinion in the weeks ahead as the Bush administration prepares to return sovereignty to Iraq by 30 June. Those opposed to the war will probably be hardened in their opinion that this was the sort of horror that should have anticipated from the outset. Others may argue that the savagery supports Mr Bush's purported mission to bring democracy to Iraq. One neighbour recommended the solution should be to drop a bomb.

But among the birdsong in the quiet neighbourhood where Mr Berg grew up, most people's thoughts were simply of him and his family, of someone they knew and whose death had brought the horror of Iraq to their doorsteps.

A few yards from Mr Berg's parents' home, Kathy McCauley was busy with the youngest of her three children.

"A lot of the mothers were terribly distraught," she said. "I was just looking at my own children this morning, my daughter getting the bus to school and I was just thinking that he used to do that."