Terrorist group claims killing of second American

Contractor was among 3 kidnapped

body of one was found Monday

September 22, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - For the second time in two days, a terrorist group claimed on a radical Islamic Web site yesterday to have killed an American hostage.

The claim couldn't be verified, but a similar statement made Monday was followed shortly by the distribution of a videotape of the beheading of American Eugene Armstrong.

According to the statement, yesterday's victim was American Jack Hensley, 48, one of three construction contractors - the others were Armstrong, 52, and Briton Kenneth Bigley, 62 - who were kidnapped Thursday from their home in Baghdad's wealthy Mansur neighborhood. Armstrong's body was found in Baghdad on Monday.

Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War), a terrorist group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for beheading Armstrong and Hensley.

U.S. intelligence officials suspect that Armstrong, Hensley and Bigley were kidnapped by a criminal gang that might have sold them to al-Zarqawi's group.

Although Bush administration officials say foreign terrorists, Shiite Muslim extremists and renegades from Saddam Hussein's former government are the source of Iraq's insurgency, one intelligence official said that "there's a lot of evidence that criminal gangs and corrupt police are at least as much of a problem."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not an authorized spokesman for the administration.

The United States has put a $25 million bounty on al-Zarqawi's head, and the military considers him the most wanted man in Iraq. In addition to killing at least eight foreign hostages, al-Zarqawi's group has claimed responsibility for bombings, mortar attacks and other assaults that have left more than 100 people dead, most of them Iraqis.

Airstrikes and raids on suspected Tawhid and Jihad safe houses are common, especially in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.

Also yesterday, U.S. forces raided the headquarters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and arrested his top advisers. It was the third raid in a week on al-Sadr strongholds in Iraq and the strongest blow to al-Sadr's insurgency. The cleric remained in hiding.

Many Iraqis say the raids on al-Sadr's supporters and the air assaults against the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Fallujah probably will breed more resentment of and violence against U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed Iraqi interim government.

The office of the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, condemned the raid. U.S. military authorities and Najaf officials wouldn't comment.

Also yesterday, a car bomb destroyed an armored Humvee that was patrolling the dangerous road between Baghdad and the city's airport in an attack that wounded four U.S. soldiers and at least six Iraqis, including a child.

Iraqi police and national guard troops thwarted a second Baghdad car bomb, cordoning off an area around a suspicious vehicle. The car exploded, damaging a nearby mosque, but no one was injured.

In Baqouba, north of Baghdad, a roadside bomb destroyed a police vehicle, killed a passing civilian and wounded 10 people, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

The U.S. military reported last night that two Marines were killed this week "while conducting security and stability operations in the al Anbar province."

Late Monday night, the Abu Ghraib prison complex was attacked with mortar rounds and machine guns. One prisoner was killed. The prison has become a favorite insurgent target since the abuse of Iraqi prisoners there by Americans came to light.

On Saturday, al-Zarqawi's group demanded the release of all female prisoners from Abu Ghraib and another Iraqi prison within 48 hours in exchange for the release of Armstrong, Hensley and Bigley. That demand was repeated - with a 24-hour deadline extension - in the videotaped killing of Armstrong distributed Monday night.

The video showed a man reading a statement before Armstrong was killed.

"The CIA assesses with high confidence that it is the voice of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi" on the video, a CIA official said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials said two Iraqi women are in their custody and that neither is at the prisons that Tawhid and Jihad identified.

Relatives of Armstrong and Bigley made emotional appeals on television yesterday, calling on the militants to free the men.

"I understand their political agenda, but what I need them to understand is the man who I have been with for 23 years, who is the father of our 13-year-old daughter, who does not understand this situation, why someone would want to hurt her father," Pati Hensley, Jack Hensley's wife, said in an interview with CNN.

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