- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

BAGHDAD — An al Qaeda-linked group threatened in a videotape yesterday to behead two Americans and a Briton within two days, and insurgents carried out a new string of car bombings, killing at least 20 Iraqis and two American soldiers.

The unrelenting violence has taken 300 lives in the past week.

The videotape was the first word on the fate of Americans Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong and Briton Kenneth Bigley since the three construction workers were kidnapped from their Baghdad home two days earlier.

“My job consists of installing and furnishing camps at Taji base,” each man said in turn after identifying himself, as all three sat on the floor, blindfolded, slightly bowed but apparently unharmed. At one point, a militant’s rifle pointed down at the head of the man who identified himself as Mr. Hensley.

The Tawhid and Jihad group, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for the abduction and demanded the release of Iraqi women detained in two American prisons.

The videotape was broadcast by Al Jazeera shortly before it revealed a fresh kidnapping claim. Another group claimed it had kidnapped 10 workers for an American-Turkish company and threatened to kill them in three days if their firm didn’t leave Iraq.

Kidnappings and spectacular bombings have become the signature weapons of insurgents waging a 17-month campaign against U.S. and Iraqi forces, a campaign that has persisted since the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi took power in June.

Nevertheless, Mr. Allawi insisted U.S. and Iraqi forces were winning the fight and said progress would be made to calm the violence before crucial elections set for January.

The insurgency is “not getting stronger; it’s getting more desperate.”

“We are squeezing out the insurgency,” Mr. Allawi said, speaking in an interview set to be aired today on ABC’s “This Week.”

Guerrillas have struck with increasing sophistication in Baghdad, the center of Mr. Allawi’s authority, and have dealt punishing blows to Iraq’s security forces — which are the linchpin of the U.S.-Iraqi strategy for fighting the insurgency.

On the road to Baghdad’s airport yesterday, insurgents set off a car bomb near an overpass as a U.S. convoy passed, wounding three U.S. soldiers. When other American troops moved to the scene, another car bomb exploded, killing two soldiers and wounding eight more.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, a car sped at a crowd of would-be recruits lined up at the offices of the Iraqi national guard. Guardsmen opened fire on the vehicle and it exploded, leaving the street strewn with bloodied bodies, twisted metal and shards of glass.

At least 19 persons were killed and 67 wounded, the Health Ministry said.

It was the third bombing this week targeting the beleaguered security forces, viewed by insurgents as collaborators with the United States and its allies.

The attack occurred as recruits lined up to read the lists of those who had passed the physical fitness test, said Rustem Abdellah, one of the job-seekers, who suffered burns to his face and chest.

“I am a graduate from the oil institute,” Mr. Abdellah, 33, said from his hospital bed. “But there are no jobs available in the oil sector, and I was forced to join the guard force because of the difficult economic situation.”

Earlier yesterday, a roadside bomb exploded on a small side street in central Baghdad, killing one Iraqi man and seriously wounding two, police and witnesses said.

The hostage videotape showed the American and British captives aired in part on Al Jazeera television before it was posted in full on a Web site known for carrying Islamic militant material.

In the tape, a masked militant dressed in black stood behind the men and read from a statement, saying the three were kidnapped because they offer logistic support to American troops. He threatened to kill them unless Iraqi women detained at the American-controlled Abu Ghraib and Umm Qasr prisons are freed within 48 hours.

A U.S. military official said only two Iraqi women were in U.S. custody.

The militants accused Mr. Allawi of enabling “infidel foreigners” to “violate the honor of Muslim women, humiliate people and suck up the riches of the country,” and gave the United States and Britain 48 hours to release Iraqi women detained at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca at Umm Qasr in the British-controlled south.

If the demand is not met, the speaker warned: “By the name of God, these three hostages will get nothing from us except their throats slit and necks chopped, so they will serve as an example.”

Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said coalition forces do not hold any women at Abu Ghraib or at Camp Bucca.

He did not rule out the possibility that women were among an estimated 1,500 prisoners at an Iraqi facility for convicted criminals at Umm Qasr.

Justice Ministry official Nouri Abdul Raheem said a U.S.-Iraqi committee reviewing the cases of detainees had decided to release all women and juveniles within the next two weeks.

Meanwhile, a previously unknown group calling itself the “Salafist Brigades of Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq” claimed it was holding 10 hostages working for an American-Turkish company, according to a tape broadcast by Al Jazeera. The group said the company had to leave Iraq within three days or the hostages would be killed.

More than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, and many have been killed. At least five other Westerners are currently being held hostage.

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