BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A militant group in Iraq led by al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheaded American Eugene Armstrong and posted a video of the killing on the Internet on Monday.
The hostage’s body was later recovered and identified, a U.S. official in Washington told Reuters. It was not immediately clear where or when it was found.
The video, broadcast on an Islamist site, showed a masked man sawing the construction contractor’s head off with a knife.
Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group said they had killed Armstrong because U.S. authorities had failed to free women prisoners in Iraqi jails. They had set a 48-hour deadline on Saturday for the releases.
They gave the United States another day to meet their demands or Armstrong’s fellow hostages, American Jack Hensley and Briton Kenneth Bigley, would also face death.
The U.S. military says no women are being held in the two prisons specified, but that two are in U.S. custody. Dubbed “Dr Germ” and “Mrs Anthrax” by U.S. forces, they are accused of working on Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs and are in a special prison for high-profile detainees.
The video also showed the banner of Tawhid and Jihad, which said it kidnapped Armstrong and his two colleagues from their house in central Baghdad on Thursday.
In the video, five armed and masked men stood around the hostage, who was blindfolded and dressed in orange overalls typical of U.S. jails and associated around the world with images of Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay.
After reading a lengthy, rambling statement, during which the hostage sat rocking on the floor, one of the black-clad men decapitated him.
President Bush, however, vowed to keep up the pressure: “We will stay on the offensive against them,” he said at an election event in Derry, New Hampshire, before the video was released.
“They will behead people in order to shake our will. These people are ideologues of hatred.”
In London, the Foreign Office condemned the killing. “This appalling crime strengthens our resolve to work with the Iraqi government and people to bring security, stability and democracy to Iraq,” a spokesman said.
Zarqawi’s group has claimed responsibility for most of the bloodiest suicide bomb attacks in Iraq since the fall of Saddam.
It has already beheaded several hostages, including U.S. telecoms engineer Nicholas Berg in May and South Korean driver Kim Sun-il in June.