From combined dispatches
BAGHDAD — The Muslim cleric responsible for the practice of beheading hostages in Iraq — including two Americans this week — has been killed in a U.S. air strike, a newspaper and Islamic clerics said yesterday.
Two more beheadings could not be confirmed. A group calling itself the “Jihad Organization” said it had “slaughtered” two Italian female hostages in Iraq, in a statement posted on an Islamist Web site.
The two Italian aid workers are Simona Pari and Simona Torretta. They worked for “Un Ponte Per …” (“A Bridge to …”) and were seized Sept. 7.
The Muslim cleric, Sheik Abu Anas Shami, 35, was killed when a missile hit the car he was traveling in on Friday in the western Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, said the clerics, who have close ties to the family in Jordan. They spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The independent Jordanian newspaper Ghad quoted Shami’s family as saying they were preparing a wake in the eastern Amman suburb, where Shami had lived before he went to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion last year.
Shami, who taught that “beheading is God’s justice to inflict pain and sow fear into the hearts of the infidel crusader enemy,” was the spiritual mentor of Abu Musab Zarqawi. The latter is the leader of the militant group Tawhid and Jihad — Arabic for “Monotheism and Holy War.”
Zarqawi and his group are blamed for some of the worst attacks in Iraq, including the bombing of the U.N. headquarters last year and the beheadings of foreign hostages — including the two Americans this week.
After making public a video of Zarqawi personally slaying the first American — Eugene Armstrong, 52 — on Monday, Tawhid and Jihad set a 24-hour deadline for its demands to be met or the next hostage would be killed.
When the deadline passed, it announced in a Web posting that the second American, Jack Hensley, 48, was killed.
The group posted yet another video on an Islamic Web site yesterday showing a man identifying himself as British hostage Kenneth Bigley pleading for British Prime Minister Tony Blair to help save his life.
“To Mr. Blair, my name is Ken Bigley, from Liverpool,” the man said in the videotape. “I think this is possibly my last chance. I don’t want to die. I don’t deserve.
“Please, please release the female prisoners that are held in Iraqi prisons,” the speaker said.
Mr. Bigley was seized from a Baghdad house with the two Americans last week.
Tawhid and Jihad has taken responsibility for the slaying of at least seven hostages since the U.S.-led invasion began, including American Nicholas Berg.