Fate Of Marine Unknown

U.S. Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun
AP (file)
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.

The denial from the Ansar al-Sunna Army came a day after a statement in the group's name announced that Hassoun had been beheaded. The Ansar al-Sunna said Sunday they didn't issue the statement, leaving it unclear if the 24-year-old was killed by another group or was still alive.

"The denial gave us a big relief," Hassoun's brother, Sami, told The Associated Press by telephone from the northern city of Tripoli, where some of Hassoun's relatives live.

But with conflicting reports and no hard evidence, the family remained afraid for Wassef's life and was still reeling from the possibility he had been beheaded.

"We are hoping that good news will come later tonight that Wassef is alive, God willing," Sami Hassoun said. He renewed his appeal to the kidnappers to release his brother.

In other developments:

  • The United States has spent 2 percent of an $18.4 billion aid package that Congress approved last October after the Bush administration called for money to finance Iraq's reconstruction, the Washington Post reports, citing figures released Friday by the White House.
  • Armed men prevented a group of Saddam Hussein loyalists Sunday from a holding planned march in Fallujah to show solidarity for the ousted Iraqi dictator. About 20 cars filled with armed, masked Islamic militants who refer to themselves as Mujahedeen, or holy warriors, forced about 100 people gathered for the rally to disperse. Islamic radicals were frequently targeted by Saddam and harbor little sympathy for the deposed dictator.
  • The Army's 1st Armored Division stowed its flags Sunday and prepared to head home after the longest tour in Iraq of any American combat command - 15 months. Even though it arrived after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, the Germany-based division saw 135 of its soldiers killed - mostly fighting Iraqi guerrillas. More than 1,100 1st Armored soldiers were wounded.
  • Trying to turn the war in Iraq into a positive political issue, President Bush was celebrating the Fourth of July with West Virginians in a state with strong ties to military service. The president's visit was part of a White House effort to explain why removing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power and trying to bring democracy to the country was essential to the fight against terrorism.
  • The Pentagon is forcing thousands of discharged soldiers back into the military, but that does not mean the United States needs to reinstate the draft, says Sen. John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
  • Iraq's new prime minister says the Iraqis are now in charge of their police and other security forces Iyad Allawi says in a broadcast interview that the chain of command is quite clear, and that there has been a drop in insurgency activities so far.

    The report that Wassef Hassoun had been killed came Saturday in a message posted on Islamic radical Web sites, signed by the Ansar al-Sunna Army in Qaim, a hotbed of guerrilla activity on Iraq's border with Syria. That name was different from the one given in the statement that originally announced Hassoun's abduction a week ago.

    The Lebanese Foreign Ministry announced Sunday that it had independent information from Baghdad that he had been killed.

    But after strongly condemning the death Sunday, Foreign Minister Jean Obeid later said news of the death "was not official."

    Obeid said the Lebanese charge d'affaires in Baghdad was "in contact with some forces that have indirect links to the (kidnappers), and these forces say they lost hope in all attempts (to win his release) and by last night the group was about to behead him or had already beheaded him."

    The U.S. military in Baghdad said it was checking into the claim of Hassoun's death but had no confirmation.

    In its statement Sunday on its official Web site, the Ansar al-Sunna Army - which has taken responsibility for suicide bombings and other attacks in the past - said it had nothing to do with the claim of Hassoun's slaying the day before.

    "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.

    It added that "any statement that is not issued through our site doesn't represent us."

    In West Jordan, Utah - where Hassoun lived with his eldest brother Mohammed after moving to the United States in the early 1990s - relatives were in seclusion since the posting of the death report Saturday.

    A telephone message left early Sunday morning at the home of Mohammed Hassoun was not immediately returned.

    On Saturday, Shuaib-Ud Din, the imam at Khadeeja mosque in nearby West Valley City, met with Hassoun's family members for about 15 minutes at their home, where the yard had been decorated in recent days by about two dozen flags put up by Boy Scouts.

    At a news conference at the mosque, the imam said the Hassouns were praying and awaiting official word of Wassef's fate. He cautioned the public against automatically believing reports out of the Middle East.

    "Every family has a different way of dealing with the crisis. This family prefers less attention," Shuaib said. "They don't like the media outlets to be pounding on their door. They would like some privacy."

    Hassoun, fluent in Arabic, French and English, was serving the Marines as a translator in his second stint in Iraq when he was captured.

    The original claim of Hassoun's abduction was issued in the name of "Islamic Response."

    On June 27, 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 releases all Iraqis in "occupation jails."

    Since Hassoun's capture, his father, Ali Hassoun, who lives in Tripoli, repeatedly has pleaded for his son's release, saying he was not involved in the fight against Iraqi resistance groups. He and his other sons had contacted politicians and Muslim clerics in Lebanon and Islamist groups in Iraq in hopes of securing the Marine's release.

    Family members said Wassef was born in Lebanon, educated at American schools there and then joined the Marines after moving to the Salt Lake City, Utah, area.

    Arabs working with the Americans in Iraq also have been targets of Iraqi insurgents, and at times the motives for kidnappings have not been clear.

    Militants have kidnapped at least five Lebanese hostages in Iraq in recent months. Four of those kidnapped were later released but one, Hussein Alyan, was shot dead and his body dumped beside a road.