Terrorists in the Abu Musab Zarqawi network in Iraq are specifically trying to kidnap an American female service member to further horrify the U.S. public.
Two senior defense sources said the word is being passed within the network on the importance of taking one or more women hostage.
"We have heard through intelligence channels that several extremist organizations are attempting to capture coalition servicemen and women," said a senior military officer in Iraq. "We have instituted additional force protection methods to thwart these attempts."
Another defense source said there is an "edict, either on paper or as an order," within terrorist networks to capture an American female service member.
Of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, about 11,000 are women. They perform a variety of jobs, serving as drivers, medics, aviators, police and clerks. By law, they are banned from land combat, but they can still come into close contact with the enemy.
Zarqawi is the most wanted man in Iraq, with a $10 million U.S. reward for his capture or death. The Jordanian-born international terrorist has made killing Americans and their allies his chief goal as a way to prevent Iraq from moving to a moderate democratic state.
He beheaded American Nicholas Berg, and his network released the video for the world to see.
Militants are holding an Army soldier and a Marine, and have kidnapped many aid workers and contractors from coalition countries. Some have been killed.
The defense source said Zarqawi's network apparently wants to further shock the Western world by kidnapping servicewomen and displaying them on videotape. Part of the terrorists' strategy is to cause so much bloodshed that President Bush loses public support for the war and is forced politically to bring the troops home.
The source also said that the terrorists might be planning "payback" for a U.S. female soldier seen taking part in the abuse of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
The Arab world has seen a series of photos of the abuse, including Army Pfc. Lynndie England holding an Iraqi inmate by a leash attached to his neck. The Army has filed criminal charges against her.
The U.S. military is taking extra precautions to ensure that no more Americans are taken hostage.
Convoys move from base to base with heavy security. Soldiers on patrol stay in regular contact with headquarters.
During the war to topple Saddam Hussein, Iraqis ambushed the 507th Maintenance Company and took three female soldiers prisoner. Pfcs. Shoshana Johnson and Jessica Lynch were rescued. Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa died in captivity.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Maj. Rhonda Cornum, a flight surgeon, was captured by Iraqis after her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down while on a rescue mission. Maj. Cornum, who suffered broken bones, was held eight days and sexually abused by her captors.