By Jonathan Finer and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 28, 2005 5:44 PM
BAGHDAD, May 28 -- An insurgent group said in an Internet posting Saturday that it had killed a Japanese hostage captured after an attack on his convoy west of the capital earlier this month.
The death of Akihiko Saito, 44, was among the latest reported in a wave of insurgent violence that has claimed the lives of nearly 700 Iraqis and more than 60 U.S. troops in May.
In northwestern Iraq, suicide car bombers killed at least seven Iraqis in an attack near a U.S. and Iraqi military base close to the Syrian border. They were among at least two dozen people reported killed over the last 24 hours as insurgents -- mainly Iraqi Sunni Muslims and foreign extremists -- have pursued a campaign of bombings, ambushes, assassinations and military-style assaults. The violence has been the worst since January, when insurgents tried unsuccessfully to scuttle Iraq's elections.
A video posted on a Web site used by insurgents to distribute information appeared to show the blood-soaked body of Saito, a security contractor for a British firm, as well as some of his identification papers.
Iraq's minister of state for national security, Abdul-Karim Enizi, condemned the killing and said that efforts were made to negotiate Saito's release, However, "the assassination came before we reached a decision with the other side," he said in a statement.
"This criminal act will not affect diplomatic relations between Iraq and Japan," Enizi said.
Japanese Foreign Ministry officials said the corpse in the video is almost certainly that of Saito, although they still need to review physical evidence such as DNA or dental samples to remove all doubt.
"We have to conclude, with regret, that it is Mr. Saito," a ministry source told reporters in Tokyo.
Officials said that Saito's British employer and Japanese police had studied the footage and concluded that the body shown was his. Hironobu Saito, the victim's younger brother, said in a written statement through local authorities in Chiba, a large suburb east of Tokyo, that the images "confirmed that it is my elder brother."
Saito, identified by Reuters news agency as a former paratrooper and veteran of the French Foreign Legion, was working in Iraq for Hart Security Ltd., a British firm based in Cyprus. He was in a convoy that an insurgent group, the Ansar al-Sunna Army, said it ambushed near the town of Hit in Iraq's western Anbar province on May 8 as U.S. forces were conducting an offensive near the Syrian border. The group claimed responsibility for the killing of Saito in the video posted Saturday.
The video showed a body lying on its back, its face bloodied. "This is your punishment . . . infidel," an unseen man shouted as gunshots rang out, Reuters reported.
It was not immediately clear when Saito was killed. According to the Associated Press, a statement accompanying the video said Saito died after being seriously wounded as a result of the ambush.
There was also conflicting information about casualties during the ambush. The Ansar al-Sunna Army initially claimed that 12 Iraqi security workers and four foreign contract workers were killed and that Saito was badly injured. But Hart Security says 10 Iraqi members of the convoy were killed and that another employee, Nick Coetzee of South Africa, is missing and presumed dead, Reuters reported.
More than 200 foreigners have been abducted during the two-year insurgency, and at least 30 of them were subsequently murdered by their captors. Of the six Japanese civilians who have been taken hostage since the U.S. invasion, two have been killed.
Japan has about 600 troops based in the southern city of Samawah.
Also Saturday, two suicide car bombs exploded at 8:30 a.m. in the northern city of Sinjar, near the Syrian border. The blasts targeted an Iraqi military checkpoint and killed four Iraqi soldiers and three civilian laborers. About 35 others were wounded, according a doctor at the Sinjar Hospital.
"We were working outside, in front of the main gate and we saw a car driving fast towards us," said Jalal Mattu Khalaf, 31, a construction laborer who was wounded in the blast. "We started running. When the explosion happened, I did not feel anything except I hit a wall and bricks started falling on my chest."
The attacks were carried out near the entrance to a military base used by Iraqi and U.S. forces.
They followed a suicide car bomb attack on an Iraqi police convoy late Friday in the town of Tikrit that killed at least two civilians and wounded 24 other people, including several policemen. An ambulance driver carrying wounded people to a hospital was also shot and killed, but it was not immediately clear by whom, Reuters reported.
In Kirkuk, about 200 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen shot and killed Nayif Sabhan Jubouri, a member of a prominent Sunni tribe and a former Kirkuk City Council member, in front of his house at 9:30 p.m., according to police Col. Adil Zain Alabideen.
In Hilla, about 50 miles south of Baghdad , three Iraqi army soldiers were killed in a drive-by shooting another was wounded, according to police Capt. Muthana Hussein.
Also in Hilla, a criminal court issued death sentences for six alleged members of the militant group al Qaeda in Iraq, which is headed by Jordanian insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, Iraqi television reported. Iraqi courts recently began imposing the death penalty, which had suspended by U.S. administrators following the U.S. invasion in March 2003. The six included three Iraqis, a Jordanian, a Tunisian and a Sudanese.
Amid the escalating violence, Iraq's most influential Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, also expressed concern about a gaping power shortage expected in the sweltering summer months. Sistani issued a fatwa, or religious order, calling on followers to use less electricity, according to Raad Haris, deputy minister of electricity. Haris, who met with Sistani Saturday in Najaf, about 80 miles south of Baghdad, said the cleric also told followers to stop stealing electricity from the country's power grid.
In other developments reported by news agencies:
· Residents in the Shiite Muslim town of Diwaniya and an Iraqi police commander said insurgents had killed 10 Iraqi Shiites who were returning from a pilgrimage to a shrine in the Syrian capital, Damascus. The bodies of the 10 were found dumped in the western Iraqi border town of Qaim.
· A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. convoy killed three Iraqi civilians in the northern city of Mosul and injured nine others, a doctor said. Among the dead was a 10-year-old boy.
· In the town of Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad in an volatile area dubbed the Triangle of Death, two civilians were killed and three wounded in clashes late Friday between insurgents and Iraqi soldiers.
· In the nearby town of Latifiyah, gunmen killed five people Friday during a car exhibition, police said.
Faiola reported from Tokyo. Special Correspondents Dlovan Barwari in Mosul, Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Marwan Ani in Kirkuk and Khalid Saffar, Omar Fekeiki and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad contributed to this report.