updated 10/19/2007 11:35:03 AM ET 2007-10-19T15:35:03

A former U.S. commander at the Iraqi jail that held Saddam Hussein was acquitted Friday of aiding the enemy Friday but sentenced to two years imprisonment for convictions on other charges — far less time than he could have received.

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

He initially faced a possible death sentence on the charge of aiding the enemy, a capital offense under U.S. military law, but a former acting commanding general of American forces in Iraq decided against a death sentence.

The judge, Lt. Col. Timothy Grammel, found Steele not guilty of that charge but 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.

He received credit for about 8½ months already served, so he will only have to spend about 15 months in jail, the judge ruled. He also will be reprimanded and dismissed from the service, and will forfeit all pay and allowances.

It was a relatively lenient sentence, considering Steele could have received a maximum of 10 years on the classified documents charge.

Phone compared to AK-47
The prosecution argued that Steele had a history of flouting the rules and claimed he loaned his cell phone to Saddam regime detainees at the Camp Cropper prison, including several on death row, for unmonitored calls. It was not known if Saddam was among them.

On Friday, prosecutors said Steele had also provided an al-Qaida-linked inmate with a cell phone for an unmonitored call, despite rules that all inmate calls should be arranged in advance and conducted with an interpreter present.

“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 the prison that held Saddam before he was hanged in December 2006.

Lawyer: 'Honest mistake'
Steele, an Army reservist, later served as a senior patrol officer at nearby Camp Victory with the 89th Military Police Brigade. The charge of illegally holding classified documents 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.”

She broke into tears describing their daughter’s learning disability and the sacrifices it has taken to care for her at their home.

“My husband has always been very supportive of me and my Army career. I’ve had to travel a great deal as a reservist,” she said. “I saw them more as comforting e-mails than anything else.”

Accused chose not to testify
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.

Steele already had pleaded guilty to three other charges during an Oct. 7 pre-trial sentencing hearing, including wrongfully storing and improperly handling classified information and possession of pornographic videos.

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