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American civilian beheaded in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A video released Tuesday on the Internet showed Islamic militants beheading an American who'd been seeking work in Iraq. His assassins said the murder was in retaliation for the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.

The man identified himself in the video as Nick Berg, 26, of West Chester, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. His family last heard from him April 9. His decapitated body had been found near a highway overpass in Baghdad on Saturday, U.S. officials said.

"My name is Nick Berg. My father's name is Michael. My mother's name is Suzanne. I have a brother and a sister, David and Sarah," Berg said on the video, which was posted Tuesday on a Web site linked to al-Qaida. Moments later the video shows the beheading.

A hooded man in the video said Berg's captors offered him in exchange for detainees at Abu Ghraib but that American authorities had refused.

There was no comment on the report from U.S. military officials in Baghdad, who referred calls to the State Department. A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was unaware of any offer to trade Berg for imprisoned Iraqis.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, however, confirmed that "the remains of U.S. civilian Nicholas Berg, who had been unaccounted for since mid-April, were found in Iraq." Berg's parents confirmed that the person in the video was their son.

"I would like people to know that Nick wasn't over there to make money," said Berg's father, Michael. "He went over there because he believed in what the forces were doing over there and he wanted to help in the positive aspect of that, which was the reconstruction of the infrastructure."

The Web site claimed that the person shown killing Berg was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian whom the United States has accused of numerous terrorist attacks in Iraq and of the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan. Last week, an audio recording that the CIA believes is from Osama bin Laden was posted on the Web site.

The United States has offered $10 million for information leading to the killing or capture of Zarqawi, whose real name is Ahmad Fadhil al Khalayleh.

A senior U.S. official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the CIA was reviewing the videotape, "trying to learn what is learnable." He said it was "unclear" whether Zarqawi himself had killed Berg.

In the video, five masked, black-clad men stand behind Berg, who's seated on the floor wearing an orange prison-style jumpsuit. The executioner stands directly behind Berg with a piece of paper in his hands. There is a shout of "God is the greatest!" in Arabic, followed by a bloodcurdling scream from Berg.

The man behind Berg then draws a knife from behind his back as Berg, still staring straight at the camera, cringes. The executioner grabs Berg by the hair, jerks his head to the side and slices his throat.

The video grows blurry and zooms in on the men crowded over the body as blood gushes over the orange jumpsuit. The men struggle for at least 30 seconds before the head is severed from the body. The clip ends with one man displaying Berg's severed head to the camera.

The video is eerily similar to a recording made in 2002 of the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl, however, was forced by his captors to state that he and his parents were Jewish. There was no similar statement by Berg, who also was Jewish. His parents said they don't believe his religion played a role in his death.

The prisoner-abuse scandal has ignited outrage in Iraq and throughout the Middle East over photographs of naked male detainees being threatened with torture and forced to simulate sexual acts. U.S. military police officers appear in the pictures, posing and smiling.

Whether Berg was killed because of the scandal may never be known, and much about his activities in Iraq is unknown.

Pentagon and federal law-enforcement officials acknowledged Tuesday that Berg had been detained by Iraqi police and had been interviewed by an FBI agent while in Iraqi custody. But no one was certain why he had been detained or what happened to him after he was released.

"It was an anomaly, an American in Iraqi custody, and we looked into it," a federal law-enforcement official said.

Berg's presence in Iraq at a time when even the best-trained security forces don't venture out alone would have been widely viewed as either naive or suspicious.

While there are as many as 200,000 Americans in Iraq, most are easily identified with specific groups: U.S. military, diplomats and others working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, private contractors working on coalition reconstruction projects or providing security, those working for aid groups, and journalists.

Berg apparently fit into none of those groups, and what's known about his activities in Iraq comes from interviews with his parents and a lawsuit they filed alleging he was being held illegally by the U.S. military in Iraq.

According to his father, the younger Berg owned a business called Prometheus Methods Tower Service Inc. and earned his living climbing communications towers to inspect the antennas, the electrical connections and the structures.

He first went to Iraq on Dec. 21, on what his father described as "an exploratory mission." He stayed until Feb. 1, making contact with a company that indicated there probably would be work for him later.

He returned to Iraq in March. He kept in touch with his family by phone or e-mail every day. He'd planned to return March 30, in time for a friend's wedding.

He didn't return as scheduled, however, and FBI agents went to the Bergs' West Chester home March 31 and told them he'd been jailed in Iraq.

On April 5, the Bergs sued in federal court in Philadelphia, alleging that the American military was holding their son illegally.

According to his parents, Berg called April 9, saying he'd been released April 6. He said he'd been detained for 13 days after being arrested at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. He said he didn't know why he was jailed.

His parents said they never heard from him again.


(Moran reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Hannah Allam in Baghdad, Sandy Bauers of The Philadelphia Inquirer in West Chester, Pa., and Joseph L. Galloway, Jonathan S. Landay, Shannon McCaffrey and Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.)


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BEHEADING


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