A second American hostage reportedly has been killed by Islamic extremists, web sites and Arab television reported today.
A group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi has claimed responsibility for the Sept. 16 kidnapping of two Americans, Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong, and a Briton, Kenneth Bigley. On Monday, a gruesome video of the beheading of Armstrong was posted on the web.
The group, known as Tawhid and Jihad, said today in another posting that it killed a second American, though it did not identify the person by name, according to the Associated Press, quoting an Islamic web site. The new posting came as the militant group's deadline passed for the release of all Iraqi women from U.S. custody.
"The nation's zealous sons slaughtered the second American hostage after the end of the deadline," the group said. It was signed with the pseudonym Abu Maysara Iraqi, the name usually used on statements from Zarqawi's group.
Reports of the latest killing could not be independently confirmed.
On Monday, American military officials in Baghdad said they had no knowledge of Armstrong's whereabouts, but a U.S. official in Washington told Associated Press that his body had been recovered.
The three men were abducted last week from their home in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood. The three employees of Gulf Services Co. appeared Saturday in televised footage in which their captors demanded the release of all female prisoners in U.S.-run jails.
Armstrong's apparent slaying occurred on another bloody day in Iraq, in which an American soldier and two prominent Sunni Muslim clerics were killed in separate incidents. A car bomb in the northern city of Mosul and U.S. airstrikes in the insurgent hotbed of Fallouja claimed the lives of at least 10 Iraqis. Hundreds of people have died in insurgent attacks and U.S. strikes so far this month.
The video, which could not be independently verified, showed a man who appeared to be Armstrong wearing an orange jumpsuit and seated on the floor in front of five masked men, one of whom read a statement vowing to restore the honor of female prisoners.
The men then held down the struggling hostage as their leader used a knife to saw through his neck. Then the severed head was placed atop the body. Later, one of the group held up the head in front of the black flag of Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad, the insurgent group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi.
Armstrong grew up in Hillsdale in south-central Michigan and left the area around 1990. His brother, Frank, still lives there. Armstrong's work in construction took him around the world. He lived in Thailand with his wife before joining Gulf Services, a firm based in the United Arab Emirates.
The abductions of Armstrong and his colleagues sent shudders through the large expatriate community in Iraq. Many kidnap victims have been snatched by gunmen while traveling on unsecured roads between major cities. But perpetrators have grown increasingly bold. On Sept. 7, two female Italian aid workers were abducted from their office in central Baghdad. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
On Monday, two members of the Muslim Scholars Assn., a staunch opponent of the U.S. occupation and the interim Iraqi government, were found slain. Sheik Jadoa Janabi was gunned down as he entered a Baghdad mosque to perform midday prayers. His colleague, Sheik Janabi Zaidi, was found dead in front of another mosque after being kidnapped by gunmen the previous evening. Earlier in the day, gunmen released two Zaidi associates who had been kidnapped with the cleric.
Zaidi and Janabi were attacked outside Sunni mosques in predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhoods. No group has claimed responsibility for the clerics' deaths, but the list of suspects is long — given Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions.
MSA spokesman Sheik Hamid Razouki Khazraji condemned the "cowardly" killings of his colleagues, blaming "unknown groups" who want to "keep the country unstable, always in a chaos situation to achieve their own sick purposes."
"This will not deter us at all or make us afraid We will keep working to achieve the national unity," he said.
There have been revenge killings of clerics for much of the past year, but it is unclear whether the latest slayings are the beginning of a larger campaign against the Muslim Scholars Assn.
The group has emerged as an advocate for the country's Sunni minority, which has dominated Iraq politically for most of the previous century but lost much of its privilege with the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein's government. In many ways, Sunnis now find themselves pitted against the nation's Shiites and Kurds.
The MSA has consistently rallied opposition to U.S. forces and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's government. It has boycotted initiatives such as the recent national assembly, arguing that any cooperation with the government was meaningless as long as foreign troops remained in Iraq.
The MSA has also served as a controversial but effective go-between in negotiations for foreigners taken hostage. Several have been released at the MSA's headquarters in Baghdad's massive Umm Qura Mosque.
Critics have charged that the MSA is deeply involved in the insurgency and the ongoing kidnappings. But Sheik Ahmed Abdel Ghafour, an MSA leader interviewed last week, denied any direct link to hostage takers. He described the group as honest brokers with "a lot of credibility" with opponents of the occupation — a status it uses to advocate for foreign hostages, he said.
Elsewhere in Iraq, insurgents killed a U.S. soldier when they attacked a patrol of the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Ash Sharqat, north of Baghdad. A spokesman said the soldier's name was being withheld pending notification of the family.
In Mosul, a car bomb killed three people and militants reportedly released 18 Iraqi national guard troops who had been held overnight.
In the rebel stronghold of Fallouja, a pair of U.S. airstrikes killed seven and wounded five, according to local hospital officials.
Khalil reported in Baghdad, Muskal handled rewrite in Los Angeles. Staff writer Emma Schwartz in Washington, special correspondent Ammar Mohammed in Baghdad, a special correspondent in Fallouja and Times wire services contributed to this report.