updated 10/15/2007 8:08:09 PM ET 2007-10-16T00:08:09

A prosecutor said Monday a former U.S. military police commander aided the enemy by letting top detainees make unmonitored cell phone calls at sites including the camp that held Saddam Hussein. But his attorney described the officer as only trying “to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis.”

The sides faced off at the opening of the court-martial of Army reservist Lt. Col. William H. Steele, who oversaw lockups that included the area where Saddam spent his final days.

The proceedings are being closely watched as the first known prosecution for aiding the enemy in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. It has also gained attention for pretrial testimony that included allegations Steele approved the purchase of Cuban cigars for the toppled Iraqi dictator.

Steele, 52, of Prince George, Va., is accused of four charges that include allowing the prisoners to use a cell phone and giving special privileges to an Iraqi woman working as an interpreter.

Steele pleaded guilty this month to three other charges, including storing and improperly handling classified information. They carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison, forfeiture of pay and dismissal from the Army, according to the U.S. military.

Ex-commander faces life sentence
If convicted in the court-martial, Steele faces a life sentence for the most serious charge — aiding the enemy. The military waived a possible death sentence, said spokesman Lt. Col. Rudolph Burwell.

The alleged incidents took place between October 2005 and February 2007. Steele was commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment at Camp Cropper prison, which held Saddam 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 prisoners Steele allegedly let make the cell phone calls have not been identified — and it was not known if Saddam was among them. Much of the opening day of the trial was closed because classified information was before the court, officials said.

“This trial is not about aiding the enemy, but about a lieutenant colonel who wanted to ensure the humane treatment of civilians held at Camp Cropper,” said Steele’s defense attorney, Capt. Yolanda D. McCray. “He followed, to the best of his ability the guidance given to him ... he sought to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. He wanted to do his job.”

She told the judge, Lt. Col. Timothy Grammel, that Steele tried to “improve America’s image” among Iraqis and treat the detainees with respect and dignity.

Witness: Steele OK'd cigars for Saddam
During pretrial testimony in June, witnesses said Steele approved buying Cuban cigars for Saddam, fraternized with a detainee’s daughter and used his service pistol to intimidate tower guards. Charges related to those accusations were later dropped. Steele has been behind bars in Kuwait since March.

Prosecutor Capt. Daniel J. Myers asked the judge to find Steele guilty of all charges.

“Some of the most important and most dangerous detainees were in custody at Camp Cropper,” Myers said. “It’s a remarkably simple case ... The prosecution will show that the accused does not think the rules apply to him.”

Myers said “incidents” resulted from those phone calls that put lives of U.S. servicemen in danger, but he did not elaborate.

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

The prosecution also says Steele developed an “inappropriate relationship” with one his married interpreters.

“She was his favorite and a deeply personal relationship between the two” developed, said Myers.

Steele’s wife Judith, who attended the opening session, declined to speak to reporters.

Col. Gary Milner, deputy brigade commander of the 89th Military Police Brigade, testified as the first witness for the prosecution and described a Feb. 22 search of Steele’s trailer. The prosecution said the search uncovered unauthorized classified documents stored there, including 11,054 marked “secret.”

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