A 26-year-old Pennsylvania businessman missing in Iraq since early April was shown being decapitated by five masked Islamic militants in a fuzzy video posted on the Internet on Tuesday. The militants claimed in the video that the grisly killing was in revenge for the abuses suffered by Iraqis at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
In the video, Nicholas Berg, of West Chester, Pa., outside Philadelphia, was shown sitting on the floor in an orange jumpsuit, with his black-clad captors standing behind him. After reading a statement saying they sought to avenge the suffering of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers, the men decapitated him.
Berg's death is apparently the first act of vengeance for the widely broadcast images of Iraqi detainees being abused and sexually humiliated at Abu Ghraib late last year. The scandal has prompted outrage internationally, and particularly in the Arab world.
The grisly slaying, reminiscent of the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in early 2002, is likely to send new waves of fear among the thousands of foreign contractors and entrepreneurs who have been lured to Iraq by the promise of financial opportunity and a chance to rebuild its war-ravaged infrastructure. Dozens of foreigners have been kidnapped over the past month, but nearly all were released.
U.S. officials said they could not verify the authenticity of the video. The U.S. consular officer in Baghdad, Paul Boyd, told Berg's family in a phone call Monday that he had been decapitated and that his body was found on a highway overpass outside Baghdad over the weekend, Berg's mother said.
The undated video, posted on the Web site of Muntada al-Ansar, an organization with ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network, attributed the crime to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian accused of organizing attacks against occupation forces in Iraq. Zarqawi has been sought by U.S. authorities since last year in connection with the killing of an American diplomat in Jordan.
A message, "Abu Musab al-Zarqawi slaughtering an American," flashed across the video in Arabic. The video did not make clear whether Zarqawi was one of the masked men or had only ordered the killing.
Berg was in restraints but appeared calm. "My name is Nick Berg, my father's name is Michael, my mother's name is Suzanne," the man says on the video. "I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah."
One of the men read a statement in Arabic, saying that they had offered to exchange Berg for several detainees at Abu Ghraib but that U.S. authorities had refused.
"So we tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls," the man says. "You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins . . . slaughtered in this way."
The men then put a large knife to Berg's neck as he screamed, according to news service descriptions of the end of the video. They shouted "Allahu akbar," or "God is greatest," before decapitating him and holding his head up to the camera.
Suzanne Berg said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon that she had not viewed the video. "I don't know if I want to see it," she said. "It's just so awful."
Nicholas Berg came to Iraq hoping to win a contract to help rebuild communications antennas destroyed during last year's invasion. Several other entrepreneurs have been killed recently, hampering the American-led effort to revive Iraq's sluggish economy and war-battered infrastructure. A Danish businessman was found dead last month, and two Finns were shot to death during a business trip in March.
Gunmen attacked a convoy of American contractors in western Iraq on Tuesday. Wendy Hall, a spokeswoman for Texas-based Halliburton Co., said the convoy was run by a subcontractor working for KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary that has a major contract to supply the Army in Iraq. Hall said all the drivers in the convoy had been accounted for.
In another attack on contractors, a Russian energy company worker was killed and two others were abducted Monday when gunmen attacked their car south of Baghdad, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday. An Iraqi working as a bodyguard and translator was injured in the attack.
Iraq's interior minister, Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaidy, said an attack on a major oil pipeline in southern Iraq on Saturday was carried out by saboteurs with a sophisticated understanding of oil operations. The explosion in the Faw peninsula has caused a major disruption in oil exports, Iraq's principal source of foreign exchange.
"We know it was not just casual terrorists. . . . They knew where to place the explosives," Sumaidy said at a news conference in Baghdad.
Sumaidy said the attack was part of a strategy to block efforts to revive Iraq's economy. "These people are targeting the income of every Iraqi person," he said.
The persistent violence contrasts sharply with U.S. officials' optimistic calls for private companies to invest in Iraq. Over the past year, the Commerce Department has conducted a three-continent campaign to promote investment and reconstruction opportunities.
It was at one of those conferences that Berg was inspired to go to Baghdad, his family said. He dreamed of building radio towers in Iraq that would beam reports from a free press.
According to his family, Berg met businessmen at the conference who asked him to inspect radio towers damaged in the war. Berg hoped to make a bid for his company, Prometheus Methods Tower Service Inc., to provide parts and repair services.
Berg's mother said she had begged him to change his mind about the trip.
But Berg, whose family described him as a bit of a rebel, decided that the potential business was worth the risk. He took a flight from New York to Amman, Jordan, on March 14 and then traveled on to Iraq. He did not have a security guard, translator or driver lined up, his mother said, and he decided to stay at smaller hotels not frequented by foreigners.
His e-mails were optimistic, his mother said, but weeks into his trip he still had not found new business. The only trouble he reported to his parents was that he had been detained in Mosul for several days by Iraqi police who were suspicious because he was traveling alone.
The incident forced him to push back his original departure date of March 30, he wrote his parents.
Berg last called his parents on April 9. He told them that his flight home was from Jordan but that a violent insurgency erupting in western Iraq had made driving there impossible.
Hearing nothing further, Berg's family spent the next few weeks searching frantically for information. They opened his e-mail account and sent notes to his business associates. They requested his cell phone records from Iraq. No one had any leads. The next time they heard any news was when the consul called.
According to a clerk at Baghdad's Al Fanar Hotel, on the east bank of the Tigris River, Berg checked in on March 22, left for Mosul the next day, returned to the hotel on April 6 and checked out on April 10.
Berg said he was going home, the clerk said, and walked down Saddoun Street, a major artery, because the road was closed to vehicular traffic. He left behind in his room a yellowed and folded page from a book by Jon Burmeister, a South African writer of thrillers who died in 2001.
The page carries a short prose poem titled "The War That Wasn't." It describes a man named Jericho, who is awakened by machine-gun fire, "his heart hammering thunderously against the ribcage as though trying to escape."
The poem ends: "What the hell was happening? God knows, he thought. But it seemed clear that the war had arrived -- the war that wasn't coming here . . ."
Cha reported from Washington. Correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran and special correspondent Muhanned M. Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.