July 4, 2004 | Broadcast

NBC Nightly News

TOM ASPELL reporting:

John, an Islamic extremist group today denied it beheaded Marine Wassef Ali Hassoun, leaving open the possibility he’s been killed by another group or that he may still be alive. The official Web site of the Ansar al-Sunna Army saying today it had no connection to a statement issued in its name on another Web site Saturday claiming to have beheaded Hassoun. “In order to maintain our credibility in all issues, we declare that this statement that was attributed to us has no basis in truth,” it said. The denial was too late for American newspapers, which front-paged the story this morning. Marine Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun went missing from his base near Fallujah June 20. A week later, Al Jazeera broadcast pictures of him held by a group calling itself Islamic Response, threatening to behead him unless the US released detainees from Iraqi prisons. No evidence has emerged linking Islamic response with the Ansar al-Sunna Army. Some analysts say there’s a possibility Hassoun may still be alive because he’s a Muslim of Lebanese decent.

Mr. WALID PHARES (Middle East Analyst): Every execution has to have a authorization by the clerics. And the clerics could have been impacted by the fact that he is Muslim. Someone from the city of origin of his family could have engaged in discussions.

ASPELL: Discussions between Hassoun’s relatives in Tripoli, Lebanon, and Islamic clerics there in touch with Iraqi clerics here in an effort to save the young Marine corporal’s life. Hassoun’s immediate family in West Jordan, Utah, remains in seclusion, visited today by their local cleric, waiting for news from Iraq. Again tonight the US military is remaining silent while the search for Wassef Ali Hassoun continues. John:

SEIGENTHALER: NBC’s Tom Aspell in Baghdad. Tom, thank you.