updated 5/13/2004 2:58:10 PM ET 2004-05-13T18:58:10

Two Islamic militant groups, Hezbollah and Hamas, issued strongly worded condemnations Thursday of the videotaped beheading of an American civilian in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab governments to criticize the slaying of Nicholas Berg, and newspapers in the region, which initially gave little coverage to the gruesome video, began to excoriate the killers.

Berg was beheaded Saturday by men claiming to act on behalf of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an affiliate of Osama bin Laden, as revenge for the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers. The videotape, posted on an al-Qaida-linked Web site Tuesday, drew revulsion around the world.

A CIA official said Thursday an analysis of the voice on the video had concluded the masked man who severed Berg’s head was al-Zarqawi.

Arab governments and Islamic militant groups, most of which have spoken out repeatedly about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, initially kept silent about the videotaped slaying.

Hezbollah condemns ‘brutal, cruel’ action
On Thursday, however, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the militant Palestinian group Hamas, both labeled terrorist organizations by the United States, said the beheading was appalling and un-Islamic.

In a statement faxed to The Associated Press, Hezbollah called the 26-year-old Berg’s killing an “extremely brutal and cruel” act.

“Hezbollah condemns this grisly act which has caused great harm to Islam and to Muslims by this group which falsely claims to belong to the religion of mercy, compassion and genuine human values,” the statement said.

“By its suspicious actions and links, this group belongs to the Pentagon school — the school of killings, occupation, crime, torture and immoral practices as exposed by the big scandal in the occupation prisons.”

Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ representative in Lebanon, denounced both Berg’s killers and President Bush.

“I condemn this brutal act and sympathize with the family of the slain American man, who I consider a victim of the wrong U.S. policies in the region,” Hamdan told The Associated Press. “U.S. President George Bush and [Berg’s] killers are equally responsible.”

Both Hezbollah and Hamas said the beheading hurt Arab causes, and predicted the United States would use it to turn attention away from the prisoner abuse scandal.

Both groups have condemned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and Hezbollah has denounced a few other major terrorist attacks that targeted civilians, but the language they used Thursday was unusually tough.

The other Palestinian militant group, Islamic Jihad, declined to comment on the beheading. The group’s Lebanese representative, Abu Imad Rifai, said he couldn’t be sure Berg was dead.

“I cannot comment on the report because I am not sure of its authenticity. I didn’t see the man’s body,” Rifai told AP.

First Arab governments speak
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia became the first Arab governments to denounce the beheading.

The Emirates’ information minister, Sheik Abdullah, issued a statement Wednesday night during a visit to Washington.

“We are ashamed, because these terrorists carried out this attack in the name of our religion and our culture,” he said. “This brutal act has nothing to do with Islam or our Arab values.”

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States called the decapitation “criminal and inhuman.”

“It is not out of character for them (al-Qaida affiliated groups) to commit acts that violate the teachings of Islam, a noble religion that deplores such acts,” Prince Bandar told reporters in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.

News of the videotape broke too late for Wednesday newspaper editions in the Middle East. But on Thursday, the papers spoke out against the killing in columns and editorials.

“We have to be ashamed as Arabs and cover our eyes,” wrote Saleh Qalab, Jordan’s former information minister who now writes a column in the newspaper al-Ra’i. “He who does not yet realize how much those organizations (militant groups) have harmed Islam and its civilized message, must look again at those shameful and hideous pictures.”

Jordanian press decries ‘horrific’ act
The English-language Jordan Times condemned the beheading in an editorial, calling it “a horrific act of the greatest magnitude.” Dubai’s English daily, Gulf News, called it “a truly barbaric act that served no cause except the brutish bloodlust of his executioners.”

The paper said that although there was “justifiable anger” over the U.S. treatment of Iraqi prisoners, “one brutality does not forgive another.”

Saudi Arabia’s popular Al-Watan said in an editorial the killing “was nothing but an offense to the image of Muslims and their behavior. The perpetrator could hardly belong to our nation.”

Some newspapers defended the killing. Al-Wafd, an Egyptian opposition paper, said the abuse of prisoners drove the killers to act.

“The brutal violations practiced by the American and British occupying forces against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison led to retaliating responses against Americans in Iraq,” it said. “The pictures of rape and torture ... forced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group to execute an American citizen by the sword.”

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