The moment of revenge: a young man beheaded for television

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It is a death beyond most people's nightmares. The young American civilian who came to Iraq because one of his goals was to help underdeveloped countries was forced to recite his parents' names to the camera in a gruesome last farewell.

It is a death beyond most people's nightmares. The young American civilian who came to Iraq because one of his goals was to help underdeveloped countries was forced to recite his parents' names to the camera in a gruesome last farewell.

Then, with the camera running, the executioners - men in black masks - held him down. A long knife descended. His last scream was stifled as the blade cut through his throat. They held up his severed head before the camera.

The final moments of Nick Berg were shown in a video released yesterday by an Islamic militant website, hours after his body was found dumped on a Baghdad highway overpass. He was not the first to die this way. Many Russian soldiers faced the same death in Chechnya. The journalist Daniel Pearl was killed the same way, even down to the taped farewell message referring to his parents.

But yesterday's horrific video had its own message. The men who killed Mr Berg said they did it in revenge for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. And so in revenge for the digital photographs of Americans torturing and humiliating Iraqis, they made their own film, cruel image for cruel image.

Mr Berg was an unlikely victim for this terrible death. Unlike many of the contractors working on reconstruction projects in Iraq, the 26-year-old from Westchester, Pennsylvania, spoke of his work in idealistic terms. When he went missing, his mother Suzanne said: "He had this idea that he could help rebuild the infrastructure."He wanted to help underdeveloped countries.

But Mr Berg was a practical man: he earned his living climbing communication towers to fix antennas and check wiring. He had his own company, Prometheus Methods Tower Service Inc. So he brought his expertise to Iraq, looking for work on reconstruction.

He was not a reckless man, it seems. He kept in touch with his parents, sending emails or telephoning several times a day to say that he was safe. Shortly before he disappeared in April, he told his parents he was on his way home, but wanted to find a way out of Iraq without travelling through Baghdad, because he believed it was too dangerous.

Mr Berg was unlucky in Iraq, even before the people who killed him got their hands on him. He went missing not once but twice. He arrived in Iraq for the first time in December 2003. On 1 February this year, he returned home on holiday, but he came back to Iraq on 14 March. That was when things started to go wrong.

His parents suddenly stopped hearing from him after 24 March. He had said he was coming home on 30 March, but he wasn't on the flight. That was his first disappearance. That time, the Americans found him. He had been arrested at a checkpoint in Mosul. He was released on 6 April, after his parents filed a lawsuit in the US.

He told them he had not been mistreated, but that at one stage he had been held in a room full of Iraqis, some of whom had begun shouting abuse at him. After that he was moved to a single cell.

Whether that first, strange episode had anything to do with his subsequent disappearance is not clear. Certainly, it is bizarre that Iraqi police would arrest an American and hold him for several days. If they had suspected him of wrongdoing, it would be more likely that they would hand him over to US forces directly. It is possible he met someone during that stint in an Iraqi prison who later took a more sinister interest in him.

After he was released, Mr Berg told his parents he was coming home. The US State Department offered to arrange him a ticket on a charter flight from Baghdad, but Mr Berg told his father Michael that he doubted they would be able to do so. Why is unclear - there were plenty of flights. Perhaps he was nervous that the plane would be attacked with a missile. The last time he spoke to his parents, on 9 April, he told them he planned to find a route out overland, either via Kuwait, Turkey or Jordan.

But that the time that the overland route was about to become seriously dangerous.

How exactly Mr Berg was taken hostage is not clear. After 9 April, his trail disappears. When American investigators asked about him at the hotel his parents thought he was staying at, the Hotel Nanar, the hotel management said he had never stayed there. Yet the investigators also spoke to another American guest who confirmed he had met Mr Berg at the hotel.

The next anyone heard of him was when his disfigured body turned up on an overpass in Baghdad yesterday. Within hours, the video that appeared to show his last minutes alive appeared on an Islamic website.

"My name is Nick Berg," he is made to recite. "My father's name is Michael, my mother's name is Suzanne. I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah. I live in ... Philadelphia." The video is disturbingly similar to that of Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, in which he is made to recite: "My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I'm Jewish."

The video of Mr Berg's killing is full of allusions, according to those who have seen it. Mr Berg is wearing an orange jumpsuit, similar to those prisoners are made at Guantanamo Bay.

Although Mr Berg was the first hostage to be beheaded in Iraq, video CDs of similar beheadings of Russian soldiers by Chechens have been on sale in Baghdad shops for months.

But yesterday it appeared there was a real video of an American beheaded in Iraq.