U.S. Marine's fate unclear after Iraqi guerrillas deny issuing statement claiming his slaying

Sunday, July 4th 2004, 10:54 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ An Iraqi guerrilla group denied on Sunday that it put out a statement a day earlier claiming to have beheaded kidnapped Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, leaving the fate of the U.S. Marine unclear.

The denial by the Ansar al-Sunna Army group left open the possibility that the 24-year-old American of Lebanese origin was killed by another group or that he was still alive.

A Lebanese Foreign Ministry official in Beirut said Hassoun was believed to be dead and that Lebanese officials in Iraq were trying to track down his body.

Lebanon's chief of mission in Baghdad ``is trying to confirm the killing 100 percent, but it seems to be over,'' the Foreign Ministry official told The Associated Press. ``We understand that he was slaughtered. God help him.''

Later, however, Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Obeid said news of the death ``was not official.'' The U.S. military in Baghdad said it had no confirmation of Hassoun's death and repeated Sunday that his status remains ``captured.''

Meanwhile, Iraqi troops foiled an attempted car bombing Sunday outside their headquarters in a city northeast of Baghdad after security forces opened fire on a man who threatened to blow up his vehicle, according to local officials.

Iraqi officials in the city of Baqouba said Sunday morning that a man driving a car rigged with explosives tried to attack the National Guard building there. The attacker got out of the car and the Iraqi troops opened fire, killing the man and setting off the explosives in the car, according to police chief Waleed al-Azawi.

Hospital officials reported that two bystanders were killed in the explosion.

Another car bombing targeted a passing U.S. convoy west of Baghdad around 8:30 a.m. causing no injuries, said Maj. Phil Smith of the 1st Cavalry Division.

In Baghdad, an explosion shook the home of an Education Ministry employee, in another attack targeting officials working with the interim government. Even low-level workers have been subjected to attack by insurgents who see the employees as collaborators with U.S. forces.

The violence Sunday was part of ongoing attacks that have plagued Iraq for more than 14 months since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

An Iraqi police official announced Sunday that U.S. and Iraqi forces have detained six members of a militant group suspected of carrying out a string of assassinations in the country's northern region. The men were reportedly members of Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish group believed linked to al-Qaida, said Col. Sarhat Qader of the Iraqi police.

In Lebanon, Hassoun's brother, Sami, said the family had no confirmation the Marine was killed.

``We have no information at all. All that we are doing now is looking at the Internet and watching television stations. We don't know anything more,'' the brother told AP by telephone from the northern city of Tripoli, where some of Hassoun's relatives live.

Hassoun's relatives in Utah have been in seclusion since the report of his death was issued Saturday. A telephone message left early Sunday morning at the Utah home of Hassoun's brother, Mohammed Hassoun, was not immediately returned.

The report of Hassoun's slaying came in a message posted on several Islamic radical Web site Sunday in the name of the Ansar al-Sunna Army in Qaim, a city on the Iraqi border with Syria. The message promised a video would be released soon showing the killing but none has emerged.

That name was different from the one used in the original claim last week that Hassoun had been kidnapped.

On Sunday, the Ansar al-Sunna Army _ a group that has claimed responsibility for past suicide bombings _ said on its official Web site that it was not behind Saturday's statement.

``In order to maintain our credibility in all issues we declare that this statement that was attributed to us has no basis of truth,'' it said. ``Any statement that is not issued through our site, doesn't represent us,'' it said.

The statement did not say whether Ansar al-Sunna Army is the group that snatched the 24-year-old Hassoun.

The original report of Hassoun's kidnapping came on June 27, when the Arab television station Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape showing Hassoun blindfolded, along with a statement from militants threatening to kill him unless the United States released all Iraqis in ``occupation jails.''

In that initial statement, the kidnappers identified themselves as ``Islamic Response,'' the security wing of the ``National Islamic Resistance - 1920 Revolution Brigades,'' referring to the uprising against the British after World War I.