Iraq promised Wednesday to release one of two high-profile women prisoners, but officials denied the decision was linked to demands by militants who purportedly killed two American hostages and threatened to execute a Briton with them unless all female Iraqi prisoners are let go.
Later Wednesday, authorities said a corpse was found with its decapitated head in a black plastic bag western Baghdad. The identity was not immediately known, but its discovery came a day after the militants claimed in a Web posting to have killed the second kidnapped American, Jack Hensley (search).
Meanwhile Wednesday, U.S. aircraft and tanks attacked rebel positions in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, killing 10 people and wounding 92, hospital officials said. And a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb Wednesday outside a photocopy shop in western Baghdad where Iraqi National Guard applicants prepared papers before heading to a nearby recruiting center, killing at least six people and wounding 54, authorities said.
Earlier, the Justice Ministry announced that Iraq and coalition officails had decided to release Rihab Rashid Taha on bail. Taha, a scientist who became known as "Dr. Germ" for helping Iraq make weapons out of anthrax, and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a biotech researcher known as "Mrs. Anthrax," are the only two Iraqi women held in American custody, according to the U.S. military.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, said he had no information about the release, announced by Justice Ministry spokesman Noori Abdul-Rahim Ibrahim. Johnson said a group of Iraqi male detainees had been previously scheduled to be released Wednesday from Abu Ghraib prison.
"There is an ongoing process that has been in place for some time to review the status of high-value detainees," he said. "All I can say is that this process continues."
Ibrahim said authorities were also considering whether to release Ammash, a former member of the Baath party. "The release of Huda Salih Ammash is under study," he said.
The apparent decision came after Tawhid and Jihad, an al-Qaida-linked group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed Tuesday to have killed Hensley, saying U.S. forces had failed to meet their demands for the release of women prisoners. The claim could not be verified.
They warned that, Kenneth Bigley, a British man taken with the two Americans a week ago would be the next to die unless all Iraqi women are released from prison.
Ibrahim said there was no link between plans for Taha's release and the demands, though Bigley's brother Paul Bigley recorded a message Wednesdya to the kidnappers, to be broadcast on Arabic language TV station al-Jazeera, urging them to release his brother in response to the expected release of one of the women prisoners.
"They need to see it on television, they need to see females walking free," he said. "Hopefully they will pick this up on the media and show that they have a gram of decency in them by releasing Ken."
Hensley and fellow American Eugene Armstrong were kidnapped Thursday with Bigley from a home that the three civil engineers shared in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood. Al-Zarqawi beheaded Armstrong, and the militants on Monday posted a gruesome video of the 52-year-old man's death.
The posting about Hensley's slaying came after the militants' 24-hour deadline for the release of all Iraqi women from prison, expired and after anguished relatives in the United States and Britain begged for the lives of Bigley, 62, and Hensley, who would have marked his 49th birthday Wednesday.
"The nation's zealous sons slaughtered the second American hostage after the end of the deadline," the statement said. It was signed with the pseudonym Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, the name usually used on statements from al-Zarqawi's group. Claims on this Web site have proven to be accurate in the past.
Several hours passed on Tuesday after the initial announcement with the promised video proof failing to appear. On Monday, by contrast, the video of Armstrong's killing was posted within an hour of the initial statement claiming he was dead.
Armstrong's body was discovered only blocks from where he lived. His family held out hope that he was still alive.
"We are still hopeful at this time that Jack Hensley is still with us," Hensley's wife, Pati, said in a prepared statement read by family spokesman Jack Haley outside the family's home in Marietta, Ga.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that authorities could not confirm the slaying.
"All we know is that there is a claim on an Internet site but we don't know if they have gone through with it (the killing)," he said.
Late Tuesday, an expanded version of the statement saying a second American had been killed appeared on a different Islamic Web site and warned that Bigley would be the next to die. It did not contain any new deadline, and its authenticity was not known.
Tawhid and Jihad — Arabic for "Monotheism and Holy War" — has claimed responsibility for killing at least seven hostages, including another American, Nicholas Berg, who was abducted in April. The group has also said it is behind a number of bombings and gun attacks.
A host of militant groups have used kidnappings and bombings as their signature weapons in a blood-soaked campaign to undermine interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's government and force the United States and its allies out of Iraq. The violence has already persuaded companies to leave Iraq, hindered foreign investment, led firms to drop out of aid projects, restricted activities to relatively safe areas and forced major expenditures on security.
In the suicide car attack, bloodied bodies, shattered glass and debris littered the street in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Jamiyah. Residents and relief workers collected human remains and put them into plastic bags.
At least 13 vehicles were wrecked and the engine of the suicide car was hurled some 150 feet away, officials at the scene of the blast said. Iraqi police and U.S. troops immediately cordoned off the area.
Interior Ministry official Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said the blast was caused by a suicide car bomber. Insurgents have repeatedly targeted Iraqi police and national guard forces with bombings, mortar attacks and shootings in a bid to sow instability and disrupt U.S.-backed efforts to build a strong Iraqi security force. Hundreds have died in the attacks.
The Sadr City fighting came as U.S. and Iraqi forces searched for weapons caches in Sadr City, a Shiite stronghold, an east Baghdad slum. An Associated Press reporter near the scene said a U.S. C130 gunship raked one area with heavy fire after rebels loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr opened fire with rocket propelled grenades.
In a video posted Saturday, Tawhid and Jihad had threatened to kill the three men unless Iraqi women were released from two U.S.-controlled prisons, Abu Ghraib and Umm Qasr.
Abu Ghraib is the prison where American soldiers were photographed sexually humiliating male prisoners, raising fears about the safety of women detainees.
The U.S. military says women are not held at either facility but has acknowledged it is holding Taha and Ammash elsewhere.
More than 130 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, and at least 26 of them have been killed.
Also Wednesday, the military said a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter crashed shortly after take off near the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraqi late Tuesday, wounding three crew members. It was not immediately clear why the aircraft went down, a spokesman for coalition forces in Baghdad said.
He said the aircraft was "severely damaged" and that an investigation was underway.