BAGHDAD -- A video recording posted on an Islamist website yesterday showed an insurgent cutting off the head of American hostage Eugene Armstrong. The killer threatened to do the same to another American or British hostage in 24 hours.
On the nine-minute video, a blindfolded man identified as Armstrong sobbed as a black-clad man, whom the tape identified as Al Qaeda-linked terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, stood behind the hostage reading a statement. The man then decapitated Armstrong and held up his severed head.
The slaying was disclosed hours after family members had pleaded for the lives of the three men, who were snatched on Thursday from their villa in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood in a brazen dawn raid.
In a video released Saturday, the group Tawhid and Jihad said it would kill the three hostages within 48 hours unless the United States released all female prisoners held in Iraq. Armstrong, from Hillsdale, Mich., was kidnapped along with Jack Hensley, from Marietta, Ga., and Kenneth Bigley of Britain.
The three men were working as civil engineers in Iraq for GSCS, a construction firm based in the United Arab Emirates, the company said.
In Washington, a US official said Armstrong's body had been recovered, the Associated Press reported. The official said authorities were reviewing the tape to try to confirm its authenticity.
In an interview broadcast yesterday, Patty Hensley told ABC's "Good Morning America" that her husband had begun to worry when security guards stopped coming to work at the company's villa.
She also pleaded for his captors to spare his life in a message broadcast on Al-Jazeera television, the same Arab satellite channel that broadcast the death threat against the three hostages on Saturday.
Ty Hensley told NBC's "Today Show" that his brother went to Iraq in February for a lucrative construction job. Hensley said his brother told him recently that the GSCS villa was being "staked out."
British officials joined Bigley's family members in calls for the release of the hostages.
"He wanted to help the ordinary Iraqi people and is just doing his job," Philip Bigley said of his brother in a message broadcast on Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based network. "At the end of the day, we just want him home, safe and well."
More than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, and at least 26 have been executed. The Tawhid and Jihad group also claimed responsibility for the April kidnapping and beheading of American contractor Nicholas Berg. The group's name means "Monotheism and Holy War."
Calling President Bush "a dog," the speaker on the video warned, "Now, you have people who love death just like you love life. Killing for the sake of God is their best wish, getting to your soldiers and allies are their happiest moments, and cutting the heads of the criminal infidels is implementing the orders of our lord."
At least five other Westerners are being held hostage, including two French reporters, two Italian aid workers, and an Iraqi-American man. On Sunday, another video showed the beheading of three Kurdish militiamen who were seized in northern Iraq, apparently by a different group of insurgents.
The US government calls the Jordanian-born Zarqawi the chief architect of terror attacks in Iraq and has issued a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Kidnappers yesterday released 18 Iraqi National Guard members who had been held hostage supposedly in retaliation for the arrest of a top aide to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army militia.
American officials had said they would do everything possible to locate the hostages, but added that as a matter of policy the United States government does not negotiate with hostage takers.
Senior American officials in Iraq have said that groups like Tawhid and Jihad try to maximize their media exposure with televised executions and suicide bombings.
Also in Iraq yesterday, a guerrilla attack killed a soldier in the First Infantry Division, the US military said in a statement.
American troops and Iraqi security forces continued strikes in and around Fallujah, believed to be the main operating base for Zarqawi's group. Yesterday's action targeted construction equipment being used by guerrillas to build fortifications around the resistance-controlled city, the US military said.
In Baghdad, two Sunni clerics were assassinated. Both were members of the Association of Islamic Clerics, a group with ties to the insurgency that in the past has helped negotiate the release of some Western hostages.
"The incidents indicate that the Association of Islamic Clerics is intentionally targeted," Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, a leader of the group, told Al-Jazeera.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the clerics' killings raised the specter of fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq, injecting a new layer of violence into the turmoil engulfing much of the country.
Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report. Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at email@example.com