BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – A video posted Monday on a Web site showed the beheading of a man identified as American civil engineer Eugene Armstrong. The militant group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the slaying and said another hostage – either an American or a Briton – would be killed in 24 hours.

The grisly decapitation was the latest killing in a particularly violent month in Iraq, with more than 300 people dead in insurgent attacks and U.S. military strikes over the past seven days. Earlier Monday, gunmen in Baghdad assassinated two clerics from a powerful Sunni Muslim group that has served as a mediator to release hostages.

The video of the beheading of the man believed to be Armstrong surfaced soon after the expiration of a 48-hour deadline set earlier by al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group for the beheading of the three civil engineers. The men – Armstrong, American Jack Hensley and Briton Kenneth Bigley – were abducted Thursday from their home in a wealthy Baghdad neighborhood.

A militant whose voice resembled al-Zarqawi, who has been linked to al-Qaida, read a statement in the video saying the next hostage would be killed in 24 hours unless all Muslim women prisoners are released from U.S. military jails.

“You, sister, rejoice. God’s soldiers are coming to get you out of your chains and restore your purity by returning you to your mother and father,” he said before grabbing the hostage, seated at his feet, and cutting his throat.

In Washington, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Armstrong’s body had been recovered, but the official would provide no information about where or when.

The taped beheading appears to be of Armstrong, but the CIA is still reviewing the tape to be sure, the official said.

The 9-minute tape, posted on a Web site used by Islamic militants, showed a man seated on the floor, blindfolded and wearing an orange jumpsuit – similar to the orange uniform worn by prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – with his hands bound behind his back. Five militants dressed in black stood behind him, four of them armed with assault rifles, with a black Tawhid and Jihad banner on the wall.

The militant in the center read out a statement, as the hostage rocked back and forth and side to side where he sat. After finishing, the militant pulled a knife and cut his throat until the head was severed.

The victim gasped loudly as blood poured from his neck. His killer held up the head at one point, and placed it on top of the body

“The fate of the first infidel was cutting off the head before your eyes and ears. You have a 24-hour opportunity. Abide by our demand in full and release all the Muslim women, otherwise the head of the other will follow this one,” the speaker said.

Tawhid and Jihad – Arabic for “Monotheism and Holy War” – has claimed responsibility for killing at least six hostages, including Armstrong and another American, Nicholas Berg, who was abducted in April. The group has also said it is behind a number of bombings and gun attacks.

In a video Saturday setting the 48-hour deadline, the militants demanded the release of female Iraqi prisoners detained by the U.S. military. The military says it is holding two women with ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime, including Dr. Rihab Rashid Taha, a scientist who became known as “Dr. Germ” for helping Iraq make weapons out of anthrax, and a biotech researcher. But there may be women held as common criminals.

They said no women were being held at the U.S. military prison at Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, where American soldiers were photographed sexually humiliating male prisoners, raising fears about the safety about women detainees.

The militant on the video called President Bush “a dog” and addressed him, saying, “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.”

Armstrong grew up in Hillsdale, Mich., but left the area around 1990. His brother, Frank, still lives there. Armstrong’s work in construction took him around the world; he lived in Thailand with his wife before going to Iraq.

The other American hostage, Jack Hensley, 48, made his home in Marietta, Ga., with his wife Patty and their 13-year-old daughter. Kidnapped with the Americans was Briton Kenneth Bigley, 62. All three worked for Gulf Services Co. of the United Arab Emirates.

Armstrong’s slaying came on the heels of the beheading – apparently by a group of Sunni insurgents – of three Kurdish militiamen taken hostage in the north.

More than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, some for lucrative ransoms, and at least 26 of them have been executed. At least five other Westerners are currently being held hostage here, including an Iraqi-American man, two female Italian aid workers and two French reporters.

On Monday, kidnappers released a group of 18 abducted Iraqi National Guard members after renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for their release, an al-Sadr aide Nail al-Kabi told The Associated Press.

North of Baghdad, insurgents attacked a U.S. patrol near the town of Sharqat, killing an American soldier.

U.S. warplanes struck in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, killing two people, and an attack in the north – the 32nd car bomb in Iraq this month – killed three people. The number of car bombings so far in September is the highest recorded in any single month since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq last year, according to U.S. military figures.

The U.S military said the Fallujah strike hit equipment militants were using to build fortifications in the city and that care was taken that “no innocent civilians” were there at the time. Doctors said the dead were municipal workers using a bulldozer on construction projects near the railway station.

In the northern city of Mosul, a car packed with explosives blew up in a residential neighborhood, killing its two passengers and a passer-by, police at Al-Salaam hospital said. Police had been searching for the vehicle, which was reported stolen earlier Monday.

It was not immediately known who was behind the gunning-down of two Sunni clerics Sunday night and Monday in Baghdad.

The two clerics belonged to the Association of Muslim Scholars, a grouping of conservative clerics that opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq and has emerged as a powerful representative of Iraq’s Sunni minority.

The association is believed to have contacts with Sunni insurgents, though it denies any links with them. It has interceded often in the past to win the release of foreign hostages, and militant groups have asked the association for a religious ruling on whether kidnappings and killing of hostages are permitted.

Gunmen shot and killed Sheik Mohammed Jadoa al-Janabi, a member of the association, as he entered a mosque in Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite al-Baya neighborhood to perform noon prayers Monday, the association said.

The previous night, gunmen kidnapped Sheik Hazem al-Zeidi and two of his bodyguards as he left a mosque in another largely Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, Sadr City. Al-Zeidi was killed and the bodyguards were released Monday, the association said.

A few clerics from the association have been killed in the past – most recently in February. But the motives in those and the latest slayings have been unclear.

There have been tit-for-tat killings of Shiite and Sunni clerics in the past year, widely believed to be motivated by sectarian sentiments.

The Sunni minority dominated Iraq for centuries but is now eclipsed by the Shiite majority and the Kurds, and there are resentments from all sides.

One of the association’s key members, Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Ghafour Al-Samarie, may have angered insurgents by criticizing attacks against Iraqi police that left dozens dead last week. Al-Samarie said the attacks should instead be directed against foreign troops – not Iraqi civilians.

The group may have also raised the ire of the militants by failing to act as yet on calls to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, sanctioning the kidnapping of foreigners.

Associated Press reporter Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo.

AP-ES-09-20-04 1748EDT

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