Bombings and skirmishes across Iraq claimed more than two dozen lives and left more than 150 people wounded Wednesday. Meanwhile, authorities recovered a decapitated body in Baghdad, later identified as American hostage Jack Hensley, and a British man who had been taken captive with Hensley was shown on a video pleading for his life after being threatened with execution by an Islamic militant group.
An al Qaeda-linked group led by Abu Musab Zarqawi of Jordan claimed Tuesday to have executed Hensley, one of two American contractors and a Briton seized from their home in Baghdad last Thursday. The group beheaded the other American, Eugene "Jack" Armstrong, on Tuesday.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad confirmed early Wednesday that it had received a body, accompanied by a head, wrapped in a plastic bag. Later in the day, a spokesman for Hensley's family in Marietta, Ga., told wire services that the government had identified the corpse as that of Hensley.
Hensley's brother, Ty Hensley, said Hensley's wife, Pati, was "extraordinarily devastated . . . . She is a widow now," Ty Hensley told NBC's "Today" program. "She is a mother of a 13-year-old daughter. She's also a caregiver of two mothers. What has fallen upon her is an extraordinary amount of weight."
Late Wednesday, an Islamic Web site posted a video of British captive Kenneth Bigley appealing to Prime Minister Tony Blair to help him. "I think this is possibly my last chance," he says on the video. "I don't want to die."
Earlier in the day, a car bomb exploded outside an ice-cream shop where Iraqi National Guard recruits were standing. Authorities said 11 died and 50 were wounded in the suicide-attack, one of numerous deadly assaults by insurgents on Iraqi security forces and recruits.
The U.S. military announced that three soldiers were killed on Wednesday, one of them in a bomb-attack in the capital. Another was killed by a roadside bomb south of Tikrit, and the third died of his wounds following an attack on a patrol in the northern town of Mosul.
And in the Sadr City stronghold of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, U.S. aircraft and tanks hit insurgent positions, killing 17 and wounding more than 100. Fighting flared in Sadr City Wednesday apparently in response to a raid by U.S. forces on Sadr's offices in Najaf and the arrest Tuesday of several Sadr aides.
Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, complained Wednesday that the raid contravened a peace deal brokered by Sistani last month to end fighting in the holy city of Najaf, wire services reported. "This step is considered contrary to the peace initiative on whose basis the Najaf crisis was solved," a statement issued by Sistani's office in Najaf said.
The kidnappings at issue Wednesday are apparently the work of Zarqawi's militant group, which claimed responsibility for executing Armstrong and Hensley after officials failed to meet its demand for the freedom within 48 hours of all Muslim women held at the Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad.
U.S. officials have said that only two women are being held -- Rihab Rashid Taha and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash--and neither of them are at Abu Ghraib. Taha and Ammash, known respectively to detractors as "Dr. Germ" and "Mrs. Anthrax," are being investigated for allegedly participating in programs designed to create biological weapons.
Confusing the hostage situation Wednesday were conflicting reports about the possible release of one of the female prisoners whose freedom is being demanded by the Zarqawi group.
In the morning, the Iraqi Ministry of Justice said it would release Taha, insisting that the announcement had no connection with the Zarqawi demands.
Later in the day, however, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said that that the women "are in our legal and physical custody. They will not be released imminently. Their legal status, like the other detainees, is under constant review." A source familiar with the situation left open the possibility that one of the women might be released on bail but said there was no timetable on that action.
Following the embassy statement, Iraq's national security adviser, Kassim Daoud, said that Iraqi judges have ordered the conditional release of three prisoners in U.S. custody, including one of two women held by U.S. forces. Daoud told a news conference that the release would be conditional and would not happen for a few days, according to news services.
"Iraqi judges decided to release them because they didn't have any evidence. The judges decided on a conditional release. It will not happen today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow," he said.
Finally, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said in an interview with The Associated Press from New York, that no decision had been made to free any prisoners.
"We have not been negotiating and we will not negotiate with terrorists on the release of hostages," Allawi said.
He said any releases have not yet been decided and that he himself has the final decision on any prisoners who should be released. He said he expected to look at some cases when he returns to Baghdad after meetings in New York and Washington this week.
There was no immediate response from the kidnappers as to whether that decision would satisfy them and prevent the execution of Bigley.
In London, Bigley's brother, Paul, told BBC radio that "hopefully they [the kidnappers] will pick this up on the media, and show that they have a gram of decency in them by releasing Ken."
Car bomb attacks on Iraqi security forces and recruits have become a deadly staple of insurgent activity and a cause for continuing complaints from Iraqis about the security situation in the country.
The site of Wednesday morning's blast had been attacked Tuesday as recruits were gathering there. They were sent home as a result and told to return Wednesday.
When they did, they were attacked again, only this time with tragic consequences despite the fact that they tried to spread out into smaller groups.
"The government is responsible for these deaths," said Haithem Saleem, a teacher who witnessed today's attack that killed 11. "It does not protect them. They are not learning the lesson very well. They know these people are targeted and they don't do anything about it."
A National Guard captain on the scene who declined to give his name, said that insurgents have turned their attention away from the police, who have been attacked so much that they are on constant alert, to the National Guard recruits, who are a "softer target."
Barbash reported from Washington.