Baghdad - Islamic State insurgents posted a video on Tuesday purportedly showing the beheading of US journalist James Foley and images of another US journalist whose life they said depended on how the United States acts in Iraq.
The video, titled “A Message To America”, presented President Barack Obama with bleak options that could define America's next phase of involvement in Iraq and the public reaction to it, potentially deepening his hand in a conflict he built much of his presidency on ending.
While the video had yet to be verified, its grisly message was unambiguous, warning of greater retaliation to come against Americans following nearly two weeks of US air strikes that have pounded militant positions and halted the advance of Islamic State, which until this month had captured a third of Iraq with little resistance.
The video, posted on social media, brought a chilling and highly personal tone to a conflict that for many Americans had started to become all too familiar.
Foley, 40, was kidnapped by armed men on November 22, 2012, in northern Syria while on his way to the Turkish border, according to GlobalPost, a Boston-based online publication where Foley had worked as a freelancer. He had reported in the Middle East for five years and had been kidnapped and released in Libya.
Steven Sotloff, who appeared at the end of the video, went missing in northern Syria while reporting in July 2013. He has written for TIME among other news organisations.
The video injected an unpredictable element into Obama's deliberations on how far to proceed with US air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, though aides said his vow not to put US combat forces on the ground in Iraq still held.
“We have seen a video that purports to be the murder of US citizen James Foley by ISIL,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. “The intelligence community is working as quickly as possible to determine its authenticity.”
“If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” she said.
A Twitter account set up by Foley's family in Rochester, New Hampshire, to help find him said: “We know that many of you are looking for confirmation or answers. Please be patient until we all have more information, and keep the Foleys in your thoughts and prayers.”
Islamic State had not previously executed American citizens publicly. The video was posted after the United States resumed air strikes in Iraq this month for the first time since the end of the US occupation in 2011.
The Sunni militant group, which has declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria in areas it controls, opened the video with a clip of Obama saying he had authorised strikes in Iraq.
The words “Obama authorises military operations against the Islamic State effectively placing America upon a slippery slope towards a new war front against Muslims” appeared in English and Arabic on the screen.
It showed black and white aerial footage of air strikes with text saying “American aggression against the Islamic State”.
A man identified as James Foley, his head shaven and dressed in an orange outfit similar to uniforms worn by prisoners at the US military detention camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, is seen kneeling in the desert next to a man standing, holding a knife and clad head to toe in black.
“I call on my friends, family and loved ones to rise up against my real killers, the US government, for what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality,” the kneeling man says.
The man next to him, in a black mask, speaks in a British accent and says: “This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen, of your country. As a government, you have been at the forefront of the aggression towards the Islamic State.”
“Today your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties amongst Muslims. You are no longer fighting an insurgency. We are an Islamic army, and a state that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide.”
Following his statement, he beheads the kneeling man. At the end of the video, words on the side of the screen say, “Steven Joel Sotloff”, as another prisoner in an orange jumpsuit is shown on screen. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the masked man says.
Islamic State also released a video on Tuesday that gave the strongest indication yet it might try to strike American targets. The video with the theme “breaking of the American cross” boasts Islamic State will emerge victorious over “crusader” America.
It follows a video posted on Monday, warning of attacks on American targets if Washington strikes against its fighters in Iraq and Syria.
The latest footage speaks of a holy war between the al-Qaeda offshoot and the United States, which occupied Iraq for nearly a decade and faced stiff resistance from al-Qaeda.
Islamic State's sweep through northern Iraq, bringing it close to Baghdad and in control of the second city, Mosul, drew US air strikes that helped Kurdish peshmerga fighters regain some territory captured by the Sunni militants.
Earlier on Tuesday, Iraqi forces halted a short-lived offensive on Tuesday to recapture Tikrit, home town of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, due to fierce resistance from Islamic State fighters.
Buoyed by an operation to recapture a strategic dam from the militants after two months of setbacks, Iraqi army units backed by Shi'a militias launched their offensive shortly after dawn on Tikrit, a city 130km north of Baghdad which is a stronghold of the Sunni Muslim minority.
But officers in the Iraqi forces' operations room said by mid-afternoon that the advance had stopped.
South of Tikrit, the government side came under heavy machinegun and mortar fire from the militants, a group of Arab and foreign fighters hardened by battle both in Iraq and over the border in Syria's civil war, the officers told Reuters.
To the west, landmines and snipers frustrated efforts to get closer to the city centre in the latest in a series of attempts to drive out the militants. Residents of central Tikrit said by telephone that Islamic State fighters were firmly in control of their positions and patrolling the main streets.
Islamic State has concentrated on taking territory for its self-proclaimed caliphate both in Syria, where it is also fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and in Iraq. Unlike al-Qaeda, the movement from which it split, it has so far steered clear of attacking Western targets in or outside the region.
Coinciding with the Kurdish advances, Damascus government forces have stepped up air strikes on Islamic State positions in and around the city of Raqqa - its stronghold in eastern Syria.
Analysts believe Assad - who is firmly in control in the capital more than three years into the civil war - is seizing the moment to show his potential value to Western states that backed the uprising against him but are now increasingly concerned by the Islamic State threat.
Islamic State added new fighters in Syria at a record rate in July, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict. About 6 300 men - 80 percent of them Syrian and the rest foreigners - joined last month, Rami Abdelrahman, founder of the Observatory, told reporters. - Reuters
* James Foley was one of the reporters travelling with South African journalist Anton Hammerl when he was killed in Libya in 2011. Foley, fellow American Clare Morgana Gillis and Spanish photographer Manuel Brabo were with Hammerl outside of Brega when he was attacked and killed by Libyan government troops on April 5, 2011. The incident made headlines around the world.