Iraq 'to release one woman prisoner'

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Iraq promised today to release one of two high-profile women prisoners, but the US Embassy in Baghdad issued a contradictory statement that they would not be released immediately.

Iraq promised today to release one of two high-profile women prisoners, but the US Embassy in Baghdad issued a contradictory statement that they would not be released immediately.

Iraqi officials denied the decision was linked to demands by militants who purportedly killed two American hostages and are threatening to execute a Briton unless all female Iraqi prisoners are freed.

Iraqi authorities later said a corpse was found with its decapitated head in a black plastic bag in western Baghdad. The identity was not immediately known, but its discovery came a day after the militants claimed in a Web posting to have killed the second kidnapped American, Jack Hensley.

A Justice Ministry spokesman, Noori Abdul-Rahim Ibrahim, announced that Iraq and coalition officials had decided to release on bail Rihab Rashid Taha, a scientist who became known as "Dr Germ" for helping Iraq make weapons out of anthrax.

Ibrahim said authorities were also considering whether to release Ammash, a former member of the Baath party and the only other Iraqi woman said to be in American custody.

However, a US Embassy spokesman said that the two female scientists "are in our legal and physical custody". He added: "Legal status of these two and many others is under constant review."

The Iraqi announcement came after Tawhid and Jihad, an al-Qa'ida-linked group led by terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed yesterday to have killed Hensley, saying their demands had not been met. He would have marked his 48th birthday today.

"The nation's zealous sons slaughtered the second American hostage after the end of the deadline," the statement said. It was posted on an Islamic Web site and could not immediately be verified.

Several hours passed after the initial announcement with the promised video proof failing to appear. On Monday, by contrast, the video of fellow American Eugene Armstrong's killing was posted within an hour of the initial statement claiming he was dead.

Late Tuesday, an expanded version of the statement appeared on a different Islamic Web site and warned that Briton Kenneth Bigley, 62, would be the next to die unless all Iraqi women are released from prison.

Ibrahim, of the Justice Ministry, said there was no link between Taha's release and the demands.

Hensley, Armstrong and Bigley were kidnapped last Thursday from a house that the three civil engineers shared in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood. Al-Zarqawi beheaded Armstrong himself, and the militants on Monday posted a gruesome video of the 52-year-old man's death.

His body was discovered Monday just blocks from where he lived, western officials and witnesses said, raising the possibility that the hostages never left Baghdad.

On Wednesday, another decapitated corpse was found in Baghdad's Amiriya neighborhood, said Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman, an official with the Interior Ministry. The US Embassy later confirmed that a headless body was handed over to American authorities, but could not confirm the identity of the corpse.

Hensley's family held out hope that he was still alive.

"We are still hopeful at this time that Jack Hensley is still with us," Hensley's wife, Pati, said in a prepared statement read by family spokesman Jack Haley outside the family's home in Marietta, Georgia.

Tawhid and Jihad - Arabic for "Monotheism and Holy War" - has claimed responsibility for killing at least seven hostages, including another American, Nicholas Berg, who was abducted in April. The group has also said it is behind a number of bombings and gun attacks.

A host of militant groups have used kidnappings and bombings as their signature weapons in a campaign to undermine Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's interim government and force the United States and its allies out of Iraq. The violence has already persuaded companies to leave Iraq, hindered foreign investment, led firms to drop out of aid projects, restricted activities to relatively safe areas and forced major expenditures on security.