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U.S. hostage killed, Iraq militant group says

A statement signed by an Iraqi insurgent group said Thursday in an Internet posting that it killed a kidnapped American. The White House said it could not confirm the death.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

A statement signed by an Iraqi insurgent group said Thursday in an Internet posting that it killed a kidnapped U.S. security consultant. The White House said it could not confirm the death.

The statement, posted on an Islamic militant Web forum, did not name the hostage and provided no pictures, video or other evidence he had been killed. It said pictures of the slaying would be released later. The U.S. Embassy said it had no information to confirm the claim.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said he could not confirm the death and said he had no additional information on the matter. “Any time there is an American that is taken hostage it is a priority for the administration, and their safe return is a priority for the administration,” he said.

It was the first time in more than a year that an insurgent group announced the slaying of an American hostage.

The Islamic Army in Iraq said it had killed “the American security consultant for the Housing Ministry,” after the United States failed to respond to its demand of the release of Iraqi prisoners.

The group Thursday blamed President Bush for failing to respond to its demands.

“The war criminal Bush continues his arrogance, giving no value to people’s lives unless they serve his criminal, aggressive ways. Since his reply (to the demands) was irresponsible, he bears the consequences of his stance,” the statement said.

“Therefore the American security consultant for the Housing Ministry was killed after the end of the deadline set to respond to the Islamic Army’s demands,” it said.

Westerner seen in video
The group issued a video two days earlier showing the hostage, identified as Ronald Schulz, 40, an industrial electrician based in Anchorage, Alaska. The man on the video was a blond, Western-looking man sitting with his hands tied behind his back.

The video bore the logo of the insurgent Islamic Army.

The video also showed a U.S. passport and an Arabic identification card with the name Ronald Schulz, but the spelling of the name was uncertain because it was written in Arabic.

According to NBC News’ Robert Windrem, the same group also claimed responsibility for an April shootdown of a helicopter carrying six employees of Blackwater Security, an American company, along with three Fijian security guards and a Bulgarian crew.

On Wednesday, the hostage’s brother, Ed Schulz, said that the man shown on the video is “my brother, there's no question about that.”

He said he last spoke with his brother on Nov. 4, when Ronald Schulz was at his home in Anchorage, Alaska.

Ed Schulz said Thursday that he was advised by the State Department that his brother might still be alive. Their sister, Julie, said the family was “just trying to get some information.”

The Rev. Doug Opp, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Jamestown, where Ronald Schulz and his family were members, said before hearing Thursday’s news that a prayer vigil was planned for Friday in the church sanctuary. Plans will continue for that until the news from Iraq is confirmed, Opp said.

Pre-election violence?
A senior U.S. counter terrorism official said the U.S. could not confirm the death of the American hostage. However, the U.S. has expected the killing of hostages in the days leading up to the Iraqi elections on Dec. 15, he said.

— two Canadians, a Briton and an American — are also being held captive, as well as a German archaeologist and a French engineer in Iraq.

The official added that they are uncertain if the hostages currently being held are in the hands of one group or if they have been “traded” or “sold” to other groups, as has happened before.

“Don't be surprised if you see video soon,” said the official, who added that assessment was not based on intelligence but instead on past killings, and that an announcement often precedes video of the killing.

‘God only knows’Ed Schulz said both he and his mother, Gladys, identified his brother on the video, and said the FBI had asked family members to give reporters only limited information.

“I don't want to get my brother killed,” Ed Schulz said. “But the fact that he has blond hair and blue eyes might get him killed. God only knows with these people.”

He said his brother’s last known location was Amman, Jordan.

Liz Colton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said U.S. authorities were investigating the Al-Jazeera report.

Iraq has seen a sudden surge of kidnappings of Westerners in the past month after a relative lull. The last time insurgents announced the killing of American hostages was Sept. 21, 2004, when al-Qaida in Iraq said it had killed Jack Hensley, a civil engineer from Marietta, Ga., and Eugene “Jack” Armstrong, formerly of Hillsdale, Mich. They had been abducted days before along with a British engineer Kenneth Bigley, who was also killed.

Group has loose ties with al-Qaida
The Islamic Army of Iraq, the group claiming responsibility for Schulz’s kidnapping, is loosely associated with al-Qaida in Iraq, NBC News reported Thursday.

One of the most active insurgent groups in the country, the group is most infamously known for killing four American contractors at a bridge in Fallujah in March of 2004. The insurgents hung the Americans’ bodies from the bridge after killing them.

In 2004, the group also launched an assasination attempt against Iraqi Vice President Ahmed Chalabi, killing five of his bodyguards.

Another insurgent group, the Swords of Righteousness, has set a Saturday deadline, threatening to kill four Christian humanitarian workers abducted two weeks ago, including an American, two Canadians and a Briton. A French aid worker and a German citizen are also currently being held by kidnappers.

Ed Schulz said his brother worked for several companies, and that it was not unusual that he had not heard from him for several weeks.

Ronald Schulz graduated from high school in Jamestown, and served in the Marine Corps from 1984 to 1991, Ed Schulz said.