BAGHDAD — Speaking through masks, the militants in Iraq made their purpose clear. One reason they would behead American captive Nick Berg - an act that appeared Tuesday on an Al Qaeda-linked website - was revenge for the torture and "Satanic degradation" of Iraqis by US troops at Abu Ghraib prison. They promised "coffin after coffin, slaughtered in this way."
Questions persist about Mr. Berg's presence in Iraq, his detention by Iraqi police, and three visits during that time by FBI investigators who apparently cleared him of involvement in terror activities, US officials said Wednesday in Baghdad.
Berg was released from custody on April 6, after being told to depart the country, and disappeared April 9. His body was found Saturday in Baghdad.
Iraqis widely condemned the beheading. While many oppose the occupation, they do not support insurgents whose steady attacks that have left more Iraqis dead than Americans. Still, many understand the rationale of revenge, which taps deep anger felt across Iraq as more photos of prison abuse are revealed.
Even in the humblest Iraqi homes, where optimism about US occupation trades off with disappointment, the scandal resonated. "I want your knife, to slaughter a US soldier with it," says 10-year-old Mahmoud, without joking, as he toys with the blade of a visitor in the Methboub family home. "I want to kill the woman in the photos. I'll go all the way to Abu Ghraib to kill her."
"What do you think, if a child thinks that?" asks his teenage sister Amal. "I was optimistic before [about the US presence], but I've lost my hope in peace."
"I advise every American to leave, especially after the prisoners," says Amal. "On the streets, people talk about making a CD showing killings and torture of Americans in revenge."
When queried about the mutilation of four US contractors on March 27 - the event that began this blood feud, in the mind of many Americans - Amal says the killers may have "had their reasons."
"If it's just a matter for revenge, everything will be destroyed," says Amal, as she weighs the question of moral equivalency. Foreign fighters have come to help poison the mix, she says. "[Iraq] is not a country anymore, it's a battlefield."
That view is shared by many Iraqis. Even though large-scale reconstruction projects are getting under way - eight ministries have been put under Iraqi control ahead of the June 30 handover of sovereignty - the prison scandal grates.
"Saddam Hussein had a lot of trained killers and trained terrorists, and the Americans killed their future from the first day - they have no choice but to fight," says a doctor who asked not to be named.
"We were so happy! When the Americans came to within 100 yards of my house, I was the first to take their pictures," says the doctor. "This new [prison] scandal will ... feed terrorists in Iraq and across the Arab world for 20 years."
If video footage is released that shows the rape of a female Iraqi prisoner by US guards, which is widely rumored here to exist, "This country will burn," he warns.
Facts are secondary in importance to perceptions for most Iraqis. Morgue attendant Hatem Jamil, at the Al-Kadhimiya Teaching Hospital, recently received the corpse of a middle-age man - with trimmed moustache and dress shoes - who Iraqi police said had been shot by nervous US forces when he chanced upon the aftermath of an anti-US attack.
"We have so many cases of people shot by the Americans...it's an uncountable number," says Mr. Jamil, pointing toward a worn registry book. He claims that two-thirds of the bodies he receives were shot by US forces - a figure other medical staff here say is far lower, perhaps 5 percent.
"When [the Americans] first came in, we thought they were going to lift us to the sky," says Jamil, who wears a watch decorated with the face of the anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "After six months, everything turned upside down. When someone shoots at Americans, why do they shoot back at a neighborhood?"
The Methboub family has a recent US leaflet trumpeting "partnership" between US troops and local authorities to renovate 60 schools (twins Duha and Hibba proudly point to a photo of theirs), hospitals, sewage stations, and soccer fields.
The leaflet tallies more than $4.5 million spent on construction in the area, 80 percent of it awarded to local contractors. More than 200 "terrorists" have been captured. Pictures show smiling US soldiers and Iraqis at ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
But the Methboubs grumble such improvements have passed them by. They admit the changes are good, but it only makes their shock greater that US forces engaged in barbarous acts at the prison.
Four months ago, in fact, a relative who delivers food to prisoners at Abu Ghraib told them hair-raising stories of US woman guards making male inmates strip, and setting attack dogs on them.
"We didn't believe Americans could do such a thing," says Karima Methboub, mother of the family. "They don't want the situation to improve. They want bombs, the instability, so they can stay in Iraq."
Mahmoud has his own ideas. "That American woman, I want to hang her here on the door," he threatens, as he mimes pummeling an imaginary US prison guard.