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U.S. officer in Iraq acquitted of aiding the enemy but sentenced to 2 years on other charges

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CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq (AP) -- A former U.S. commander at the Iraqi jail that held Saddam Hussein was acquitted Friday of aiding the enemy but received two years imprisonment for convictions on other charges after pleading for leniency from the judge.

Army Lt. Col. William H. Steele, 52, of Prince George, Va., could have faced a life sentence if convicted of accusations he allowed prisoners to use his cell phone to make unmonitored calls.

"I have no excuse that would even remotely justify my actions," Steele told the judge at his court-martial near Baghdad. His voice shook with emotion as he described the humiliation he felt from being in confinement for the past eight months following a 28-year military career.

"I have come to realize how severe and detrimental consequences could have resulted from my failures," Steele said. "I violated the confidence and trust that was placed in me by those who selected me for this job."

Steele was acquitted of the charge of aiding the enemy for allegedly lending his cell phone to former members of Saddam's regime, including those on death row, and an al-Qaida member at Camp Cropper prison in Baghdad. It was not known if Saddam was among them.

The judge, Lt. Col. Timothy Grammel, convicted him of unauthorized possession of classified documents, behavior unbecoming an officer for an inappropriate relationship with an interpreter and failing to obey an order.

The two-year sentence was lenient, considering Steele could have received 10 years in jail on the classified documents charge. He will also be dismissed from the service.

Steele had sought leniency from the judge, asking him to consider his accomplishments and citing an outstanding assessment from the International Red Cross on the prison he commanded.

The prosecution argued that Steele had a history of flouting the rules.

"You heard in this courtroom, in a closed session, that he handed detainee No. 2184, an al-Qaida member in Iraq, his personal cell phone and allowed a five-minute conversation. It was the equivalent of putting an AK-47 in his hands," said Capt. Michael Rizzotti, the prosecutor.

"All it takes is a phone call and if that detainee can communicate with someone outside, that can put soldiers of the United States at risk," Rizzotti said. "The second he handed over that phone for an unmonitored phone call, in Arabic, that is the second he aided the enemy."

Maj. David Barrett, the defense attorney, said Steele never provided a cell phone to a detainee for an unmonitored conversation and said his client was doing his job by treating the suspects at the prison humanely.

"Long after we leave Iraq -- and we will leave it -- what will be left? It's the impression of the soldiers that will really matter," Barrett said. "Lt. Col. Steele treated the detainees with dignity and respect. Let's not confuse that with sympathy for the enemy."

The alleged incidents took place between October 2005 and February 2007 when Steele commanded the 451st Military Police Detachment at Camp Cropper prison. Saddam was held at the facility before he was hanged in December 2006.

Steele later served as a senior patrol officer at nearby Camp Victory with the 89th Military Police Brigade. The charge of illegally holding masses of classified documents on downloaded and unmarked CDs pertained to that period.

Barrett said Steele's storage of classified documents was an "honest mistake" and he argued that the defendant's relationship with an interpreter did not constitute behavior unbecoming an officer.

Steele's wife, Judith, who is also an Army reservist, testified on behalf of her husband during the sentencing phase of the trial, describing the e-mails written by her husband to the interpreter as "inconsequential."

Steele chose not to testify in his own defense in the first court-martial on charges of aiding the enemy since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Much of the trial, which began Monday, was held behind closed doors because officials said classified information was being discussed.

The only other U.S. officer known to have been accused of collaborating with the enemy since the 2003 start of the war Capt. James J. Yee, a Muslim chaplain who was linked to a possible espionage ring at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison. He was eventually cleared and given an honorable discharge.

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