BAGHDAD, Iraq – For the second time in as many days, a terrorist group claimed on a radical Islamic Web site Tuesday to have killed an American hostage.
Meanwhile, Iraqi authorities together with U.S. forces have decided to free one of only two high-profile women prisoners currently in American custody, a ministry spokesman said today.
Ministry spokesman Noori Abdul-Rahim Ibrahim, however, denied the decision was linked to a demand by militants who abducted two Americans and a Briton calling for the release of all female Iraqi prisoners.
“The Iraqi authorities have agreed with coalition forces to conditionally release Rihab Rashid Taha on bail,” Ibrahim said.
Taha, a scientist who became known as “Dr. Germ” for helping Iraq make weapons out of anthrax, and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a biotech researcher known as “Mrs. Anthrax,” are the only two Iraq women held in American custody, according to the U.S. military.
The group’s claim that it killed the American hostage couldn’t be verified, but a similar statement made Monday was followed shortly by the distribution of a videotape of the beheading of American Eugene Armstrong.
According to the statement, Tuesday’s victim was American Jack Hensley, 48, one of three construction contractors – the others were Armstrong, 52, and Briton Kenneth Bigley, 62 – who were kidnapped Thursday from their home in Baghdad’s wealthy Mansur neighborhood. Armstrong’s body was found in Baghdad on Monday.
A terrorist group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi called Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War) claimed responsibility for beheading Armstrong and Hensley.
However, U.S. intelligence officials suspect that Armstrong, Hensley and Bigley were kidnapped by a criminal gang who may have sold them to al-Zarqawi’s group.
The United States has a $25 million bounty on al-Zarqawi’s head, and the military considers him the most wanted man in Iraq. In addition to killing at least eight foreign hostages, al-Zarqawi’s group has claimed responsibility for bombings, mortar attacks and other assaults that have killed more than 100 people, most of them Iraqi citizens.
Airstrikes and raids of suspected Tawhid and Jihad safe houses are common, especially in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
Also on Tuesday, U.S. forces raided the headquarters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and arrested his top advisers. It was the third raid in a week on al-Sadr strongholds in Iraq, and the strongest blow to al-Sadr’s insurgency. The cleric remained in hiding.
Many Iraqis say the raids on al-Sadr’s supporters and the air assaults against the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Fallujah probably will breed more resentment of and violence against American forces and the U.S.-backed Iraqi interim government.
The office of the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, condemned the raid. American military and Najaf officials wouldn’t comment.
The American military reported Tuesday night that two Marines had been killed this week “while conducting security and stability operations in the al Anbar province.” The province, where Fallujah and Ramadi are, is considered the staunchest insurgent stronghold in Iraq.