Thursday, September 23, 2004

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.

In edicts published on Islamist Web sites, Shami said Islam permitted the beheading of hostages who cooperated with the U.S. military.

“Whenever a major kidnapping would take place, they would take from him a ruling on how to handle the hostage according to religious Shariah teachings,” said one Islamist who declined to be identified.

The Islamist who knew Shami in Jordan said his militancy was shaped by four years as a religious seminary student in Saudi Arabia, where he fell under the influence of the strict Wahhabi brand of Islam before returning to Jordan in 1991.

Shami, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, also was known as Omar Yousef Jumah. He was thought to be the voice on several audiotapes that Tawhid and Jihad released via the Internet.

He also was credited with writing many of Zarqawi’s letters and statements that have appeared on Web sites that take responsibility for suicide bombings and attacks in Iraq, associates said.

Uncertainty over the fate of the British hostage who was kidnapped with the two Americans generated confusion yesterday when Iraq’s Justice Department said a decision had been made to release a top female germ-warfare scientist for Saddam Hussein.

Inevitable speculation followed that the announcement was driven by Zarqawi’s demand that all female prisoners be freed in exchange for the hostages.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and U.S. officials quickly moved to squelch the idea.

Mr. Allawi told the Associated Press that his government has begun reviewing the status of its detainees, including the two female scientists known as “Dr. Germ” and “Mrs. Anthrax” because of their involvement in Saddam’s biological-weapons programs.

The U.S. military says it has two Iraqi women in custody, both high-profile security detainees held at an undisclosed location — Rihab Rashid Taha, the scientist known as “Dr. Germ” for helping Iraq make weapons out of anthrax, and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a biotech researcher known as “Mrs. Anthrax.”

Mr. Allawi said the review process had nothing to do with the current hostage situation and had started weeks ago.

“We have not been negotiating, and we will not negotiate with terrorists on the release of hostages,” he said in a telephone interview from New York. “No release takes place unless I authorize it.”

A decapitated body was found in Baghdad yesterday. The family of Mr. Hensley said it had received confirmation that the body was his.

Later, a videotape appeared on an Islamic Web site purportedly showing Mr. Hensley’s beheading.

The blindfolded man who was killed wore an orange jumpsuit and sat in front of five masked militants dressed in black. One terrorist read a statement as the five stood before a Tawhid and Jihad banner.

After the terrorist finished reading the statement, he pulled a knife and jumped on the blindfolded man from behind, slit his throat and cut off his head.

Meanwhile, U.S. aircraft and tanks attacked rebel positions in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum, killing 10 persons and wounding 92. Suicide attackers set off two car bombs in Baghdad, one of them killing six persons. The second, in the upscale district of Mansour, wounded four U.S. soldiers and two Iraqis.

A U.S. soldier was killed in one of the bombings, the military said hours later, but it didn’t specify which bombing.

Two other U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq yesterday, officials said. One was killed by a roadside bomb about three miles south of Tikrit. The second died of his wounds after an attack on a patrol in the northern town of Mosul.

U.S. and Iraqi troops also battled with insurgents in the central city of Samarra, where U.S. forces had earlier touted success against militants waging a 17-month insurgency, police said. At least one child was killed and five persons wounded in the fighting, police said.

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