Thursday, May 13, 2004

President Bush said yesterday the beheading of an American civilian by masked killers in Baghdad shows the “nature” of terrorists seeking to derail the U.S. mission to deliver freedom to the people of Iraq, but vowed the brutal murder will not shake his administration’s resolve.

In his statement on the graphic videotape that shows five hooded men cutting off the head of a 26-year-old private telecommunications contractor, the president said “there is no justification for the brutal execution of Nicholas Berg — no justification whatsoever.”

“The actions of the terrorists who executed this man remind us of the nature of the few people who want to stop the advance of freedom in Iraq. Their intention is to shake our will. Their intention is to shake our confidence,” Mr. Bush said on the White House South Lawn.

“Yet by their actions, they remind us of how desperately parts of the world need free societies and peaceful societies. And we will complete our mission. We will complete our task,” he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president had not viewed the graphic videotape, which has been posted on an al Qaeda-linked Web site. The video is titled “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi shown slaughtering an American,” referring to an associate of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who is believed to be behind a wave of suicide bombings and attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq.

It was not clear whether Zarqawi, also wanted for the assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan in 2002, was one of the masked men.

One of the killers claimed the motive for murdering Mr. Berg, a Jew, was retribution for the “Satanic degradation”of Iraqi prisoners held in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. “We tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls. You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins… slaughtered in this way,” the masked man said.

But Mr. Bush said “Nicholas Berg was an innocent civilian who was in Iraq to help build a free Iraq.” He also expressed his condolences “to the family and friends of Nicholas Berg.”

Mr. McClellan said the president had been briefed about the tape’s contents. The spokesman vowed the United States “will pursue those who are responsible and bring them to justice.”

In Baghdad, Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, echoed the pledge.

“The U.S. government is committed to a very thorough and robust investigation to get to the bottom of this,” he told reporters. Mr. Senor said several agencies were involved in the investigation, including the FBI and the Department of Defense. “We’ll be announcing who takes the lead,” he said.

Iraqi Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin said: “Those psychopaths who committed this immoral crime should be brought before justice very rapidly and get their deserved punishment.”

Ezzedine Salim, chief of the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council, said: “Decapitations and mutilations are unacceptable and have nothing to do with Islam.”

The body of Mr. Berg, of West Chester, Pa., was found Saturday, the same day he was decapitated, near a highway overpass in Baghdad. He had disappeared April 9, just a few days after he was released by Iraqi police, who had held him in Mosul since March 24 on suspicion of involvement in illegal or terrorist activities.

The FBI warned Mr. Berg shortly before his disappearance that Iraq was too volatile a place for unprotected American civilians but he turned down a State Department offer to fly him home, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Mr. Berg’s remains were flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware yesterday.

The White House said it did not know the identities of his killers.

“I do not have an update on who exactly is responsible. Apparently, those who claim credit are terrorists tied to al Qaeda, as they stated in this video,” Mr. McClellan said.

On the videotape, Mr. Berg is shown in an orange jumpsuit sitting in front of five men, their faces masked, as one read an anti-American text in Arabic. After pushing Mr. Berg to the floor, the men, repeatedly shouting “Allahu Akbar” — or “God is great” — severed his head using sawing motions with a big knife as he screamed. The killer then held the head up to the camera.

While some critics of the Iraq war sought political advantage of the murder, charging that Mr. Berg’s execution was a direct result of the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, Mr. McClellan said the killers are simply looking for an “excuse.”

“Terrorists will change their excuses, or find whatever excuse they can to try to carry out their murderous and evil acts. The terrorists look for all sorts of excuses to try to justify murder and destruction and chaos. There is no justification for the taking of innocent human life,” he said.

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