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Iraq: Hostage Drama Continues As Another Beheaded Body Is Found

An Iraqi militant group claims to have beheaded a second American hostage, two days after killing a U.S. civil engineer. The group -- Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, led by Al-Qaeda ally Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi -- is threatening to kill a third hostage from Britain unless the U.S. releases its Iraqi women prisoners. The Iraqi Justice Ministry said today that one of female prisoner may be released, but the U.S. denied any knowledge of that claim. Meanwhile, fighting continued today as at least 10 people were killed after U.S. patrols scoured Baghdad's Al-Sadr City for militants.

Prague, 22 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Yet another beheaded body was found in Baghdad today. Iraqi officials say it could be the corpse of American hostage Jack Hensley.

Hensley, another American, and a Briton were believed to be held hostage by the militant group Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad (Unification and Holy War), led Al-Qaeda ally Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. The group said yesterday it had killed American engineer Eugene Armstrong and posted the grisly images of his beheading on the Internet.

Saad al-Hassani is a political scientist at Baghdad University. He told RFE/RL that amid all the beadings and violence, the mood in Baghdad has grown gloomier. He added that ordinary Iraqis do not back the killing of foreign civilians but consider it a consequence of the ongoing violence.

"The situation is rather bad. People are feeling quite resentful about what's going on and they consider the beheading of the American guy as, you know, some kind of a very bad result of the whole situation. The comparison is quite possible because there are so many Iraqis who are also killed one way or another by these explosions. So, they consider it also a result of a bad situation," al-Hassani said.

Iraqi state-run media reported the results of a poll today that show almost 90 percent of Iraqis oppose the executions of Westerners, but say U.S. troops should be resisted. They are also concerned that "the terrific killings of civilians create a very bad distorted image of Islam."

Meanwhile, Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad is threatening to kill the third hostage, Briton Kenneth Bigley, if the U.S. military does not release all its female prisoners in Iraq. Washington says it has only two women detainees in Iraq.

Today, the Iraqi Justice Ministry announced it may release on bail Rihab Taha, one of the woman prisoners. She is a scientist who was involved in biological-weapons programs for the former regime of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military denied having any knowledge of the release. U.S. policy is not to respond to the demands of terrorists.

Al-Hassani of Baghdad University said that if the release does happen, it should not be seen as a concession to militants, but as part of a U.S. policy realignment aimed at reconciliation with some former Ba'athists. "It seems there is some kind, I feel there is some kind of turn in the way of [U.S.] thinking," he said. "It is no longer fanatic [towards the former Ba'ath Party] as it started."

Al-Hassani notes that Taha -- dubbed "Dr. Germ" by U.S. officials -- was a Hussein loyalist. He said al-Zarqawi did not demand the release of former members of the regime.

Iraqi militant groups have abducted more than 100 foreigners over the past 17 months. They include two French journalists who were abducted almost a month ago and two female Italian aid workers who were kidnapped along with two Iraqi colleagues on 7 September.

Today, France's ambassador to Iraq, Bernard Bajolet, said Paris is doing everything it can to ensure to hostages' release. "We are following our contacts with all parties who could play a useful role in this [French hostage] affair but you understand that I will not be able to say more about this at this stage," he said. Bajolet spoke after meeting in Baghdad with members of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which has worked in the past for the release of hostages.

Meanwhile, violence continues. In Baghdad, U.S. aircraft and tanks attacked alleged insurgent positions in Baghdad's Shi'a neighborhood of Al-Sadr City. Hospital sources say at least 10 people were killed today in the raid, while at least six people died and dozens were wounded in the western half of the capital in the latest suicide bombing

Yesterday, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told a news conference at the United Nations in that his government is winning its war with terrorists. "We are winning, we are making progress in Iraq," he said. "We are defeating terrorists. Najaf, Samarra, Mosul, Basra are all live examples that a lot of progress has been made. Unfortunately, the media have not been covering these significant gains in Iraq."

But analyst al-Hassani said ordinary Iraqis on the street have a different opinion. He said a common view is that Allawi's interim government is not living up to its promises to bring security to the country.

For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".