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.
The claim 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.
The latest victim is believed to be American Jack Hensley, 48, one of three construction contractors—the others were Armstrong, 52, and Briton Kenneth Bigley, 62—who were kidnapped last 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. Although Bush administration officials say foreign terrorists, Shiite Muslim extremists and renegades from Saddam Hussein's former regime are the source of Iraq's insurgency, one intelligence official said: "There's a lot of evidence that criminal gangs and corrupt police are at least as much of a problem." The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he's not an authorized spokesman for the administration.
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 left more than 100 people dead, 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.
Also on Tuesday, a car bomb destroyed an armored Humvee that was patrolling the dangerous road between Baghdad and the city's airport in an attack that wounded four U.S. soldiers and at least six Iraqis, including a child.
Iraqi police and national guard troops thwarted a second Baghdad car bomb, cordoning off an area around a suspicious vehicle. The car did explode eventually, damaging a nearby mosque. No one was injured.
In Baqouba, north of Baghdad, a roadside bomb destroyed a police vehicle, killed a passing civilian and wounded 10 people, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.
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.
Late Monday night, the Abu Ghraib prison complex was attacked with mortar rounds and machine guns. One prisoner was killed. The prison has become a favorite insurgent target since the abuse of Iraqi prisoners there by Americans came to light.
On Saturday, al-Zarqawi's group demanded the release of all female prisoners from Abu Ghraib and another Iraqi prison within 48 hours in exchange for the release of Armstrong, Hensley and Bigley. That demand was repeated—with a 24-hour deadline extension—in the videotaped killing of Armstrong distributed Monday night.
The video showed a man reading a statement before Armstrong was killed.
"The CIA assesses with high confidence that it is the voice of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi" on the video, a CIA official said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials said only two Iraqi women were in their custody, and that neither was at the prisons that Tawhid and Jihad cited.
Hensley's and Bigley's family members made emotional appeals on television Tuesday, calling on the terrorists to free the men.
"I understand their political agenda, but what I need them to understand is the man who I have been with for 23 years, who is the father of our 13-year-old daughter, who does not understand this situation, why someone would want to hurt her father," Pati Hensley, Jack Hensley's wife, said in an interview with CNN. "I would plead with them to please realize this man does not deserve this fate."
In a bid to save 10 Turkish hostages held by a different Iraqi militant group, the Turkish construction firm that employs the men announced that it would cease doing business in Iraq, meeting the militants' demands.
At least 130 foreign hostages have been seized in Iraq since the U.S. invasion 18 months ago, and at least 26 of them have been killed. Interior Ministry officials said an even greater number of Iraqis had been kidnapped, usually for purposes of ransom, but they couldn't provide a figure.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.