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Islamic radicals claim to behead a hostage U.S. Marine

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A radical Islamic group in Iraq said Saturday that it had beheaded U.S. Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun in a videotaped execution.

If true, it would mark the third beheading of a hostage in Iraq in about two months. Military officials in Baghdad could not say whether Hassoun was dead or alive.

Hassoun, assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, was reported missing on June 21 and was seen last Sunday in a video aired by the Arab satellite news channel al-Jazeera. On that video, Hassoun was shown wearing a blindfold, with a man holding a curved sword above his neck. His unnamed captors said in a statement that they would kill him unless the United States released Iraqi detainees.

The Saturday statement was posted to an Islamic Web site.

"We would like to inform you that the Marine of Lebanese origin Hassoun has been slaughtered," said the group, called Ansar al-Sunna Army. "You are going to see the video with your very own eyes soon."

No footage of Hassoun's death was shown Saturday night. In the past two beheadings—of a South Korean and an American—videos were provided to al-Jazeera. Terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, also linked to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for those.

In its statement about Hassoun's execution, the group identified itself as being part of the National Islamic Resistance—1920 Revolution Brigade, a name making reference to the Iraqi revolution of 1920 against British rule.

An offshoot of the group, Ansar al-Sunna, had also taken credit for twin suicide bombings that killed more than 100 people in northern Iraq earlier this year. The group is thought to be either a part of Ansar al Islam, an al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist group that operated out of northern Iraq before the war, or a collection of Wahabi Muslim extremists.

Reports of the killing came on a day of renewed violence in Iraq, whose government was given sovereignty less than a week ago. South of Baghdad, near the town of Mahmudiya, seven Iraqi national guardsmen were killed and two wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack.

The U.S. military also confirmed that a Marine died of wounds sustained Friday in fighting in western Iraq, but gave no further details.

While the number of attacks on U.S. troops went down to between 20 and 25 daily last Monday and Tuesday following the handover of sovereignty, attacks have returned to between 35-and 45 a day now, according to a senior military official in Baghdad, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The military said it found a car-bomb assembly site in southern Baghdad, where four vehicles were in various stages of completion. Soldiers also found 50 pounds of C4 explosives, the equivalent of about $8,200 in cash, a stash of Ak-47s and RPG equipment.

The country's prime minister, Iyad Allawi, also was reported Saturday to still be considering offering amnesty to insurgents, perhaps even those who fought with American forces.

The statement alleging Hassoun's beheading appeared to be dated June 20, the day before Hassoun was listed as missing, and said the group was from Qaim, a town in western Iraq near the Syrian border.

The statement said that Hassoun was kidnapped after being lured off his base in connection with a romantic relationship he was having "with an Arab girl."

The U.S. military originally classified Hassoun as missing, but later changed his status to captured, based on the images aired on al-Jazeera of the blindfolded Marine.

Dozens of foreigners in Iraq have been taken hostage during the past several months, but most have been released after negotiations or military operations.

On Saturday, the Ansar group said that it was holding "another infidel."

"Withdraw your army and you will be safe," the group said. "Or else we will keep doing what we are doing."

There was a separate video released this week showing the alleged execution of U.S. Army Spc. Keith Maupin, who was captured during an ambush in April.

In the portion of the video that was aired on al Jazeera, a blindfolded man, ostensibly Maupin, was sitting on the ground. The military has not confirmed that the man was Maupin, and it was not possible to verify his identity from the video. According to al Jazeera, the next several scenes showed the man being shot in the back of the head and then lumped into a hole in the ground.

(Lasseter reports for The Miami Herald)


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