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Qaeda Leader Beheads U.S. Civilian in Iraq
DUBAI (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq beheaded an American civilian and vowed more killings in revenge for the "Satanic degradation" of Iraqi prisoners, an Islamist Web site said on Tuesday.
A poor quality videotape on the site showed a man dressed in orange overalls sitting bound on a white plastic chair in a bare room, then knelt on the floor with five masked men behind him.
"My name is Nick Berg, my father's name is Michael... I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah," said the bound man, adding he was from Philadelphia.
One of the masked men read a statement urging Muslims to seek revenge after pictures were published of Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
"Nation of Islam, is there any excuse left to sit idly by? And how can free Muslims sleep soundly as they see Islam being slaughtered, honor bleeding, photographs of shame and reports of Satanic degradation of the people of Islam, men and women, in Abu Ghraib prison?" the statement said.
The masked men then pushed the 26-year-old American to the floor and shouted "God is greatest" above his screams as one of them sawed his head off with a large knife then held it aloft for the camera.
The Web site said Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a top ally of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was the man who cut off Berg's head. The statement in the video was signed off with Zarqawi's name and dated May 11.
Jordanian-born Zarqawi, 37, has raised his profile and status as al Qaeda's most active operational leader with a series of suicide bombs and attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
A body found in Baghdad over the weekend was identified on Monday as Berg before the videotape was released.
"Berg's body was found with his hands behind his back and beheaded," said another U.S. official who declined to be identified. "The body was found along a roadside by a U.S. military patrol."
"This shows the true nature of the enemies of freedom," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. "They have no regard for the lives of innocent men, women and children. We will pursue those responsible and bring them to justice."
Photographs shown around the world of naked Iraqi prisoners stacked in a pyramid or positioned to simulate sex acts at Abu Ghraib prison have provoked international anger and pose a serious setback to U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.
President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have both apologized and pledged to punish those responsible but both governments have come under pressure for senior ministers to take the blame for the abuse.
The militants' statement, addressing families of U.S. soldiers, said Zarqawi's group had offered Washington to swap Berg for Iraqi prisoners held by U.S. troops "but they refused."
"You will only get shroud after shroud and coffin after coffin slaughtered in this manner," it said.
"As for you Bush, dog of the Christians, anticipate what will harm you... You and your soldiers will regret the day you stepped foot in Iraq and dared to violate Muslims."
The murder was condemned by the Council of American-Islamic Relations, a U.S.-based Islamic civil rights and advocacy group.
"We condemn this cold-blooded murder and repudiate all those who commit such acts of mindless violence in the name of religion," it said.
It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the tape carried on the Muntada al-Ansar Islamist Web site, but the CIA was reviewing the video for clues of who was responsible, a U.S. official said.
"He was a private American citizen not associated with a military contract," said a State Department official.
Berg had been missing for several weeks. He was last heard from on April 9 when he telephoned his parents. He said he was trying to find a safe way home after trying to find work as an independent communications contractor.
"The Berg family is devastated by this loss. They want to extend their sympathy to other families who have also suffered," said Bruce Hauser, their neighbor in the Philadelphia suburb of West Chester.
The ritual killing resembled the murder of U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl, beheaded by Islamist militants in Pakistan. Berg's orange overalls were reminiscent of those worn by al Qaeda suspects held by U.S. troops at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.