U.S. captive pleads for life

BAGHDAD -- A distraught American hostage appeared on television with automatic weapons trained on his head Wednesday, a day that recalled the darker periods of Iraq's insurgency as bombs killed at least 14 people and U.S. Marines clashed with insurgents near the Syrian border.

As insurgent attacks have diminished since the national elections Jan. 30, Iraqi and U.S. officials have focused attention largely on shaping the country's political future and expressed hope that the insurgency was winding down. But a videotape broadcast on al-Jazeera television showed a scene more typical of last summer and fall: a foreigner pleading for his life as gunmen pointed automatic weapons at his head.

Jeffrey J. Ake, 47, of LaPorte, Ind., apparently reading from a statement on a wooden desktop in front of him, asked the United States to start a dialogue with Iraqi insurgents, to start withdrawing its forces from Iraq and to save his life, according to al-Jazeera. In one hand, he held open what appeared to be a U.S. passport, and in the other, an ID card.

The White House announced that authorities were monitoring the situation but would not negotiate for Ake's release. Ake was kidnapped Monday from a water-treatment facility near Baghdad where he worked as a contractor on a reconstruction project.

Meanwhile, four other American contractors were among those wounded yesterday by a car bomb that killed five Iraqis in Baghdad. The victims were traveling between the capital and the nearby airport in a Defense Department convoy when the bomb detonated.

Al-Qaida in Iraq, the insurgent group led by a Jordanian guerrilla, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, asserted responsibility for the attack in an Internet statement.

In northern Iraq, a bomb killed at least nine Iraqi police officers as they were defusing another explosive device planted beneath an oil pipeline near Kirkuk.

The slain men were members of an Iraqi anti-sabotage unit for oilfields, police Col. Afran Hannah said. They had successfully disabled one bomb -- apparently a decoy -- only to have a second, hidden bomb explode nearby. Five Iraqis were wounded in the incident.

And on Iraq's long border with Syria, U.S. Marines battled guerrillas claiming ties to al-Qaida for a third straight day. The U.S. military said yesterday that Marines had killed 30 insurgents Monday and Tuesday as they repeated

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