- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

Arab media played down or ignored the news of an American civilian’s beheading by Islamic militants in Iraq, while continuing to give prominence to the American prison abuse scandal, journalists and diplomats in the Middle East said yesterday.

Newspapers and television stations avoided showing the decapitation, though one of the most graphic images — a photo of a masked militant holding up the businessman’s severed head — was published by Kuwait’s Al Siyassah daily.

Most newspapers in the region said the news came in too late on Tuesday for them to devote significant space to it. Many ran brief wire reports on inside pages, and some chose to leave it out.

The major television networks broadcast short reports about the murder of Nicholas Berg, 26, of West Chester, Pa., about halfway into their main bulletins Tuesday night, soon after a tape of the killing was posted on the Internet.

The Dubai-based Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya initially showed video of one of the captors pulling out a knife and jerking Mr. Berg’s body to one side, but later versions just had the militants standing behind him while a statement was read.

Al Jazeera, the network with headquarters in Doha, Qatar, showed less than two minutes of the five-minute tape while Mr. Berg was still alive, channel spokesman Jihad Ballout said in a telephone interview.

He said Al Jazeera’s editors decided to lead their main newscast at 11 p.m. on Tuesday with a story about the killing of six Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip.

It then began its Iraq coverage with a general report about the situation on the ground, followed by the investigation of the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers. Then came the Berg story.

“It’s an important news item,” Mr. Ballout said. “But as horrific as it is, our editors thought the Gaza story was more important. It has dimensions that are very rare, with a relatively large number of Israeli fatalities. Plus, we had some exclusive footage.”

He said he understood why the decapitation story led U.S. television news bulletins, but added: “We tend to reflect the news from another perspective.”

Egypt’s leading daily, Al-Ahram, ignored the beheading yesterday, and two other major pro-government newspapers ran wire reports on inside pages, without photos. The Syrian press, which is tightly controlled by the government, did not mention the execution. Jordanian newspapers, state television and radio reported the killing, as did most Lebanese papers.

Explanations that the Berg story broke too late for deadlines were not entirely convincing. Some of the same papers published reports about the imposition of new U.S. sanctions against Syria even though that announcement, while expected, came after the tape of Mr. Berg’s decapitation was released.

Diplomats and journalists in the Middle East said intellectuals in the region largely condemned Mr. Berg’s murder, for which responsibility was claimed by Abu Musab Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s chief operative in Iraq.

“Informally, most of the people we spoke to today, including some from the press, were pretty disgusted and dismayed by the footage,” said a Western diplomat in Egypt. “They think the killing was un-Islamic and gave the Americans even more of an excuse to kill Iraqis in this war.”

On the streets, however, opinion was divided.

“That man went to help rebuild Iraq,” office worker Mansour Muhammad told Reuters news agency in a coffee shop in Cairo. “I’m very sad that he was killed, but his stupid government put him there. … If his family are looking where to put the blame, they shouldn’t look further than the White House.”

An Egyptian pharmacy student who gave only his first name, Mamdouh, said: “This action was bad because it makes Arabs look like barbarians, but that’s what the Americans think anyway. My fear is that now Americans will feel Iraqis deserve the torture.”

Many Iraqis were quoted by wire reports as saying that Islam prohibits murder and as condemning foreign fighters for misinterpreting the Koran.

“This … has nothing to do with Islam. It was done in retaliation allegedly for the Abu Ghraib incident. It has nothing to do with that,” the Iraqi ambassador to Washington, Rend Al-Rahim, said on CNN.

“It has everything to do with international terrorism, fanaticism that unfortunately has gravitated to Iraq and is trying to ruin our progress.”

But some sided with Mr. Berg’s killers, linking his execution to the prison abuses.

“From what we have seen, it was a natural reaction to the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib [prison]. What the Americans are doing now is terrible,” a 45-year-old female dentist told Agence France-Presse in Baghdad.

Mr. Berg, who was abducted in April, is the third Western civilian to be beheaded by Islamic militants since September 11, 2001.

Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was killed in Pakistan in early 2002. Also, a video of a man being decapitated appeared on the Internet around the time that an Italian hostage was executed in mid-April.

“Nick Berg’s life was simple,” said Walid Phares, professor of Middle East studies and religious conflict at Florida Atlantic University. “He traveled to help Iraqis and establish a personal link with Iraq’s civil society. But he was obstructing the spread of jihad.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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