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2 questioned in beheading of American

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The U.S.-led coalition is interrogating two men in connection with the beheading of an American businessman that was shown in a grisly video posted on the Internet nearly two weeks ago.

Based on tips from Iraqis, four men were arrested in a Baghdad raid earlier this week and two were quickly released, said Brig. Gen Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for U.S. military operations in Iraq. He refused to elaborate, saying only that the men were believed to have "knowledge, perhaps some culpability" in the death of 26-year-old Nicholas Berg.

Berg disappeared after checking out of a Baghdad hotel April 10. A videotape of his beheading by Islamic militants surfaced May 11 on a Web site linked to al-Qaida. CIA analysts concluded that the man who read a statement on the tape and then killed Berg is very likely Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist suspected in a series of bombings across Iraq.

Kimmitt wouldn't say whether the men in custody are linked to al-Zarqawi or al-Qaida. Some news reports have suggested that the detainees are Iraqis loyal to Saddam Hussein's former regime.

"We may find out they had no association with the murder," Kimmitt said.

In Washington, a senior Pentagon medical official confirmed that the Army is investigating eight more deaths of Iraqi and Afghani detainees as possible homicides "which involve suspected assaults of detainees either before or during investigative sessions." A ninth detainee death is believed to be from natural causes pending an autopsy, the official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Back in Iraq, members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council held an emergency meeting Friday to determine an official response to a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid on member Ahmad Chalabi's home and offices Thursday.

Hamed al-Kifaey, the Governing Council spokesman, said members ended talks at 8 p.m. with a decision not to offer resignations. They were unanimous in condemning the raid, he said.

"One by one, they said this is not acceptable," Kifaey said. "They said if it could happen to one of us, it could happen to all of us."

Chalabi is a onetime Pentagon protege who has fallen from favor in recent months. Iraqi police, under the supervision of coalition forces, carried out the raid. They had hoped to arrest up to 15 people on charges including kidnapping and car theft.

The council grilled the Iraqi justice and interior ministers, demanding to know who issued the order permitting the raid, two members said. L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S civilian administrator for Iraq, would have had to sign off on the raid, but his spokesman insisted Iraqis led the operation.

"If anyone's looking for an apology, it should be directed at the Iraqi police force," said Dan Senor, a senior coalition spokesman. "This was not something Ambassador Bremer was involved in."

The U.S. claim that it wasn't involved seemed implausible to council members.

Songul Chapouk, a Governing Council member, said in a telephone interview during the meeting that the arrest warrants were issued from an Iraqi court that reports to Bremer. She said talks were "heated" and that some council members were debating resignations, a move that would deal a harsh blow to the coalition just six weeks before it hands over limited sovereignty to an interim government.

"We agree we should condemn the raid; the Americans should have treated him better because he's a G.C. member," Chapouk said. "But I think we should be patient and not resign right now. We'll probably end up punishing the policeman just to satisfy Dr. Chalabi."

Violence continued in southern Iraq, where U.S. troops are battling Shiite Muslim militiamen loyal to a renegade cleric whose uprising is now more than a month old. Fighting was especially intense around shrines in the holy city of Karbala, where members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fired at American soldiers from mosques and alleyways, according to the coalition.

Kimmitt said AC-130 gunships were used in the clashes because their precision would prevent damage to holy sites. Sheikh Ahmed Sheybani, al-Sadr's spokesman in Najaf, said the fighting overnight Thursday and Friday has been some of the fiercest yet between U.S. troops and al-Sadr's forces.

A journalist with al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite channel, was shot to death while covering the clashes in Karbala. At least 18 insurgents were killed.

"When the occupation's soldiers are killed and their vehicles are destroyed, we've seen them now turn to another tactic by bringing in aircraft," Sheybani said.

Also on Friday, the U.S. military said that in Baghdad a soldier and two Iraqi civilians died Thursday when a homemade bomb detonated. A Marine assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Fallujah also died Thursday in a vehicle accident.

The coalition also released 454 prisoners from Abu Ghraib, the prison west of Baghdad that is at the heart of a scandal involving apparent abuse of detainees under the watch of American prison guards.

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(Staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this story.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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