By Joshua Partlow and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
BAGHDAD, June 19 -- More than 8,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops scoured villages south of Baghdad on Monday for two soldiers missing since an attack four days ago, as an insurgent group linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed that it had abducted the Army privates.
The claim was made in an Internet posting by the Mujaheddin al-Shura Council and could not be verified. Maj. Todd Breasseale, a Marine spokesman in Baghdad, said that the soldiers' whereabouts remained unknown and that "there is no indication that any reports of a kidnapping are authentic."
The military identified the missing soldiers as Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore. They were attacked at a checkpoint near Yusufiyah, south of Baghdad. A third soldier, Spec. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was killed in the incident.
Also Monday, the U.S. military said it had charged three American soldiers in the deaths of three detainees May 9 near the Tharthar Canal north of Baghdad. Defense officials said the soldiers allegedly shot three unidentified men of "apparent Middle Eastern descent" shortly after they were taken into U.S. custody.
Pfc. Corey R. Clagett, Spec. William B. Hunsaker and Staff Sgt. Raymond L. Girouard -- all of the Army's C Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division -- were charged Sunday with numerous offenses, including premeditated murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, communicating a threat and obstructing justice, according to charge sheets released Monday.
The two soldiers and one noncommissioned officer allegedly shot the men at or near the Muthana Chemical Complex, and a senior defense official said the soldiers claimed the men were attempting to flee their custody. The unit commander ordered an inquiry on the day of the deaths, military officials said in a statement released in Iraq. The soldiers are now confined pending a pre-trial hearing.
The soldiers allegedly threatened another soldier while the investigation was underway, each telling Pfc. Bradley L. Mason not to testify against them as a witness, according to the charge sheets. Each said they would kill Mason if he told anyone what happened, according to the charges.
The investigation into the incident is the latest probe involving claims of excessive force by U.S. troops in recent months, most notably the alleged killing of 24 civilians by Marines in Haditha last November.
In a separate case, Italian prosecutors on Monday requested the indictment of a U.S. soldier in the fatal shooting of an Italian intelligence agent in Baghdad in March 2005.
Meanwhile, the claim that two soldiers in Yusufiyah were abducted comes less than two weeks after the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, in a U.S. airstrike north of Baghdad. The organization has issued a series of Internet statements vowing revenge on U.S.-led forces.
Among the questions raised by the attack in Yusufiyah is how three U.S. soldiers became isolated from a larger force. U.S. soldiers generally travel in convoys of at least two Humvees carrying several soldiers, particularly in areas with a known insurgent presence.
While some news reports have suggested other vehicles and personnel were present during the attack, Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said there were no other U.S. troops present. "Our reporting indicates it was a three-man security team that was attacked," he said.
Troops involved in the hunt for Menchaca and Tucker have searched and cleared 12 villages, killing three insurgents and detaining 34 others, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said in a statement. Special Operations forces are participating in the hunt, which is being led by the Army's 4th Infantry Division, based in Baghdad. Seven U.S. military personnel have been injured in the search effort.
Fighter jets, dive teams, unmanned drones and soldiers on the ground are involved in the search, Caldwell said. Pilots have flown 280 hours and launched eight air assaults to try to find the missing men, who are members of the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
An Internet message purportedly posted under the name of the Mujaheddin al-Shura Council -- an umbrella organization of insurgent groups including al-Qaeda in Iraq -- claimed the group had apprehended the soldiers and mocked U.S. efforts to find them. It did not name the soldiers or provide any evidence it held them.
"The American army conducted raids campaign with various vehicles and armored vehicle near site of the incident," the statement said, promising more details in the coming days. "But the Army of 'the mightiest state in the world' went back defeated, dragging the robes of shame and disgrace behind it."
In a second statement released Monday, the group claimed to be holding four Russian diplomats abducted in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood in early June. Another Russian Embassy employee died in the attack. As conditions of the diplomats' release, the group demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and the release of "our brothers and sisters in Russian prisons."
Witnesses at the scene of the attack in Yusufiyah told the Associated Press they saw two soldiers being directed into vehicles by several masked gunmen, and Iraq's foreign minister said in an interview on CNN that it appeared the soldiers had been kidnapped.
A source in the intelligence wing of Iraq's Interior Ministry, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, also said there was evidence the two men had been abducted, though he said that it was unclear who was responsible.
While cautious in their public remarks following Zarqawi's death, U.S. commanders expressed hope it would undermine the cohesion of the insurgency. Sunni Arab tribal leaders in the restive northern city of Kirkuk held a meeting late Sunday to declare their opposition to al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose attacks have killed at least 75 people there in recent weeks.
In Baghdad Monday, as a comprehensive security crackdown continued, police and soldiers conducting a raid on a suspected insurgent safe house in the southern neighborhood of Saydiyah killed 10 armed men and wounded three others, according to Maj. Gen. Mahmood Abdul Karim of Iraq's Interior Ministry.
A car bomb detonated near police patrolling an intersection north of downtown, killing five police officers and wounding two others. Five civilians were also wounded in the attack, Karim said.
Also Monday, insurgents shot dead four passengers driving in a vehicle in the southern neighborhood of Madain, police said.
Staff writer Josh White in Washington, special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Naseer Nouri, Bassam Sebti and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.