Iraqi militants claimed on a Web site Saturday that they beheaded a captive U.S. Marine, in what would be the fourth decapitation of a foreign hostage in the region since May.
A group calling itself the Ansar al-Sunna Army said in its written statement that Lebanese-born Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun had been lured into a trap involving a love affair with an Arab woman.
Lebanon's state-run news agency reported early Sunday that Hassoun had been killed. The National News Agency cited the Foreign Ministry, which was informed of the death by Lebanon's charge d'affairs in Baghdad. The agency did not say how Hassoun's death had been confirmed.
Also Saturday, insurgents set off a roadside bomb at an Iraqi checkpoint, killing seven national guardsmen in the deadliest attack on Iraqi troops since the U.S. occupation authorities transferred power to a new Iraqi government five days ago.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his country was in "a race against time" in dealing with insurgents. He said Iraqi troops "are not ready" to deal with the challenges alone.
About 160,000 foreign troops, mostly American, stayed after Monday's handover of sovereignty to the new interim government. NATOleaders last week offered military training to the new Iraqi government.
In recent days, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen have offered military help under certain conditions.
"These countries can support United Nations operations and play a central and effective role," Zebari said.
The U.S. military in Baghdad said it was checking into the report of the 24-year-old Hassoun's death but had no confirmation.
It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the group's statement.
"We would like to inform you that the Marine of Lebanese origin, Hassoun, has been slaughtered. You are going to see the video with your very eyes soon," said the statement, signed in the name of the group's leader, Abu Abdullah al-Hassan bin Mahmoud.
It also said it had taken another hostage but did not give details.
The group called itself the Ansar al-Sunna Army in Qaim, a town on the Syrian border that has seen frequent clashes between U.S. troops and militants. The message was dated June 20, the day the military said Hassoun, of West Jordan, Utah, was first reported missing — though the posting was dated Saturday.
"We will show a new video of the detention of a new infidel hostage and as recently promised, the beheading of rotten heads," the statement said.
"Withdraw your army and you will be safe. Or else we will keep doing what we are doing."
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 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.
Saturday's claim on Hassoun's death was issued on the same Islamic extremist Web forum where footage was posted last month showing the beheading of U.S. engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr., in Saudi Arabia. The site also often carries claims of attacks by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant said to be operating in Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi's movement claimed responsibility for the beheading last month of Kim Sun-il, a South Korean who worked for a company delivering supplies to American forces, and Nicholas Berg, an American businessman, whose body was found in Baghdad in May. Johnson's slaying was claimed by al-Qaida-linked militants in Saudi Arabia, and pictures of his severed head were posted on the Internet.
Another militant group in Iraq claimed last week that it had killed Spc. Keith M. Maupin, of Batavia, Ohio, an American soldier held captive since April. The military has not yet confirmed that it was Maupin who was shown in grainy video footage of a man being shot in the back of the head.
In Saturday's statement, the militants said they used a woman to trap Hassoun.
"As your soldier had a love affair with a young Arab woman, he has been lured from the base," the statement said.
The U.S. military said Hassoun had been absent without authorization since June 20, though after the video was shown it changed his status to "captured."
The New York Times, citing a Marine officer speaking on condition of anonymity, has reported that Hassoun had been traumatized by seeing one of his sergeants killed by a mortar, and was trying to make his way back to Lebanon. The officer told the paper that Hassoun sought the help of Iraqis on the base, was betrayed by them and handed over the extremists.
Hassoun's eldest brother, Mohammad, who lives in a Salt Lake City suburb, denied the report. The Marine's relatives were in seclusion at their Utah home after the Web site posting Saturday.
Ansar al-Sunna Army claimed responsibility for the twin suicide attacks on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party offices in Irbil on Feb. 1 that killed 109 people.
Early Saturday, seven Iraqi national guardsmen were killed by a roadside bomb at a checkpoint in Mahmudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, U.S. officials said.
A U.S. Marine died Saturday of wounds suffered Friday during operations in Anbar province, a Sunni-dominated area west of Baghdad that has been a hotbed of resistance, the military said. The U.S. military gave no details. The Marine was the fourth to die this month in Anbar.
An Iraqi police officer was killed Friday when insurgents attacked a checkpoint in the northern city of Mosul, the U.S. military said in a statement Saturday.
A senior U.S. military official said it would take years for Iraqi forces to grow strong enough to take back responsibility for security in their country.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was "unable to find a place where we've gone to total local control."
Iraqi officials have said they are considering implementing emergency measures — possibly martial law — in some areas to help restore security. The U.S. official said the military was looking at ways to assist.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces in Baghdad said they uncovered a bomb-making facility and several weapons caches, and detained dozens of people believed linked to an insurgent cell accused of planting roadside bombs.
Soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division found several assembled bombs, four vehicles they believed were to be rigged as car bombs, automatic weapons, ammunition, explosives and about $8,750, the military said.