A 26-year-old Pennsylvania businessman in Iraq to help with reconstruction was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamic militants who said they were avenging U.S. soldiers' mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, according to a gruesome video of the murder posted yesterday on the Web site of a militant group tied to al-Qaida.
The video attributed the killing of Nick Berg to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has emerged as a leading plotter of terrorist attacks on Americans and their allies in Iraq and elsewhere.
A title on the videotape said: "Sheik Abu Musab Zarqawi executes an American with his own hands and promises Bush more."
The killing of Berg was denounced by President Bush, whose spokesman said it showed "the true nature of the enemies of freedom," and by his Democratic rival for the presidency, Sen. John Kerry, who said "America stands together" against terrorists.
News of the beheading left senators at a hearing on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners "in a virtual state of shock," said Virginia Sen. John W. Warner. Some senators had earlier expressed the fear that photos of naked prisoners being humiliated by U.S. soldiers could spark retaliation against American hostages.
Family and friends described Berg as an adventurous small businessman who had started a company, Prometheus Methods Tower Service, for which he climbed radio towers in the Philadelphia area to make repairs and install lights.
He had a humanitarian streak and had traveled to Kenya and Ghana, where he purchased a $900 brick-making press for a village, his family told reporters.
Looking for work
A supporter of the American invasion of Iraq, Berg decided to travel independently there earlier this year in search of work repairing radio station antennas and other communications equipment. He had disappeared April 9 after telling his family he was looking for a safe way to return to the United States.
His body was found Saturday near a highway overpass in the northern city of Mosul.
Berg had decided to abandon the search for work after being detained by Iraqi police late March 24 in Mosul. On March 30, FBI agents visited his parents, Michael and Suzanne Berg of West Chester, Pa., to tell them Nick Berg was jailed in Iraq and to establish the reason for his presence in that country.
But Berg continued to be held by decision of the U.S. military, possibly because of uncertainty about whether his identity had been stolen by someone else, his parents said in recent media interviews.
Berg's parents filed a federal lawsuit April 5 against Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanding their son's release. He was freed the next day, according to Alfred A. Gollatz, the attorney who handled the case.
Father blames delay
In an interview yesterday with public radio station WBUR in Boston, Michael Berg said he blames the U.S. government in part for his son's death. If he had not been held incommunicado for nearly two weeks, he could have left Iraq safely, Michael Berg said.
"We could have gotten him out of there before the hostilities escalated," he told the radio station. "I still hold [Rumsfeld] responsible.
"But it goes further than Donald Rumsfeld. It's the whole Patriot Act. It's the whole feeling of this country right now that rights don't matter anymore because there are terrorists about."
In the video footage, posted on the Web site of the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, Nick Berg, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and with his hands bound, sits on the floor in front of five men wearing head scarves and masks.
In a quiet voice, he introduces himself: "My name is Nick Berg. My father's name is Michael. My mother's name is Suzanne. I have a brother and sister, David and Sara. I live in ... Philadelphia."
Then one of the masked militants reads a statement linking Berg's fate to the detainees in Abu Ghraib prison.
"For the mothers and wives of American soldiers, we tell you that we offered the U.S. administration to exchange this hostage for some of the detainees in Abu Ghraib and they refused," the man says.
"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. You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins ... slaughtered in this way."
Then the men are shown pushing Berg down. They call out "Allahu akbar!" - God is great - as their victim screams and one draws a large knife from his shirt and uses it to cut off Berg's head, which he then holds up for the camera.
Other taped killing
The grisly killing and its recording on video resembled the decapitation of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by kidnappers in Pakistan in 2002. U.S. officials reportedly believe that murder was carried out by Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the al-Qaida leader accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks, who was captured last year.
If Zarqawi planned or committed Berg's murder, it is only the latest evidence of his growing significance as a terrorist organizer, said Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on militant Islamic movements at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Born in Jordan, Zarqawi, 37, trained and fought in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen who battled Soviet troops in the 1980s. He was subsequently jailed for a time in Jordan for radical activities, Schanzer said.
In recent years, Zarqawi was associated with Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), a militant group with a mountain base in the Kurdish north of Iraq. U.S. forces destroyed the camp and killed about 200 fighters, but some militants fled to Iran and have returned to Iraq to fight, said Schanzer, who spoke with Ansar detainees during a trip to Iraq in January.
Zarqawi has been tied to the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan and to major bombings in Iraq as well as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Schanzer said.
"This is a man with a deep portfolio of terrorist attacks and people he can call on to help him," Schanzer said. "What this reminds me of is [al-Qaida leader Osama] bin Laden in the mid-1990s."
In a 17-page letter to al-Qaida leaders on a computer disk intercepted from a courier in January, Zarqawi proposed trying to start a civil war in Iraq.
The letter called Americans "the biggest cowards that God has created and the easiest target."
Neighbors and friends described Nick Berg, who studied engineering at Cornell University but left before graduating, as an energetic and idealistic man who had gone to Iraq against the wishes of his parents.
Michael DiBartolomeo, principal of Henderson High School when Berg graduated in 1996, remembered him yesterday as "one of those really good kids." He played saxophone in the marching band, winning an award for his musical achievements, and participated in the Science Olympiad.
Bruce Hauser, a retired chemist who has lived next door to the Bergs for 23 years in the quiet, middle-class neighborhood 30 miles from Philadelphia, said Nick was an inquisitive child who grew up playing baseball in the back yard.
He said he was not surprised to hear that Nick Berg had gone to Iraq to help with reconstruction: "That's just the way Nick was."
Hauser said the parents and siblings were shattered "not only because he died, but the way he died is very devastating."
"Nick was a gentleman, always asking about my family," said neighbor John Trama, a retired science teacher. "He was ambitious. He had a business and it was a unique business."
'You get infuriated'
Trama said that when he heard the news of Nick Berg's death yesterday on the radio, it brought back the same feeling of rage and helplessness he recalled from Sept. 11, 2001.
"You get infuriated," he said. "You want to do something about it, but you just feel trapped."
Staff writer Gail Gibson contributed to this article.