By Jonathan Finer and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
BAGHDAD, June 20 -- Two U.S. soldiers, missing for three days since their abduction in an insurgent stronghold south of Baghdad, were found dead, a military spokesman said Tuesday, and a top U.S. commander ordered an investigation into why the men were isolated from a larger force in such a dangerous part of Iraq.
The remains of the soldiers -- Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore. -- were recovered near a power plant in the town of Yusufiya, where they had been operating a vehicle checkpoint that came under attack Friday, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell said in a briefing for reporters. A third soldier, Spec. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., died in the initial assault.
"Coalition forces have in fact recovered what we believe to be the remains of our two soldiers," Caldwell said. "Our heartfelt prayers go out to both the families and friends of our two soldiers."
Caldwell declined to describe the condition of the soldiers' bodies, saying it would be "inappropriate until I know what the families were told." He said it was clear that the soldiers had died of wounds suffered in captivity, rather than at the site of the attack on the checkpoint, but that the cause of death could not be immediately determined.
According to residents of Yusufiya and a relative of one of the victims, the soldiers were beheaded. An Iraqi official said they had been brutally tortured before their death, but provided no further details.
The bodies will be flown to Kuwait and then to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for full autopsies and DNA testing to ensure they were identified correctly, the military said in a statement.
As 8,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops scoured the region, a tip from a local resident led them to the soldiers' bodies after dark Monday. Because the informant warned that the bodies were booby-trapped, they were not removed until after dawn Tuesday, the military said.
"We went ahead and established a cordon around the area to protect it so it would be undisturbed at daylight this morning and brought the necessary assets like explosive ordnances," Caldwell said. "They did have to dismantle some stuff to get to them."
One U.S. soldier was killed and 12 wounded during the three-day search across a vast area south of Baghdad, while two insurgents were killed and 78 detained, the military said.
The killings of the two privates raised questions about why such low-ranking troops were left alone, backed by a single armored Humvee, in a region Caldwell described Thursday as "an insurgent hotbed" and the most dangerous place in Iraq for U.S. forces after Baghdad and Ramadi. Even in safer areas, U.S. troops generally travel in convoys to provide support in case insurgents attack or a vehicle breaks down.
Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, has ordered an investigation into procedures used that night. "They are looking at the entire situation," Caldwell said.
To the consternation of U.S. officials, who are careful to withhold casualty details until the soldiers' families can be notified, the deaths were first reported by an Iraqi defense official. Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Muhammed Jassim said in a news conference Tuesday they had been tortured and killed "in a barbaric way."
The Mujaheddin al-Shura Council, a collection of several insurgent groups including al-Qaeda in Iraq, claimed in an Internet statement to have "slaughtered" the two soldiers, suggesting they were beheaded. The group, which had vowed revenge on U.S. forces following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi this month, claimed on Monday to have abducted the two privates.
Asked Tuesday if the Internet statements were credible, Caldwell responded: "Absolutely not," and added that based on "preliminary analysis" there was "no reason to believe" the group's claims.
In telephone interviews, two Yusufiya residents, Muyasar Ghalib al-Qaraghuli, 19, and a tribal leader who gave his name only as Abu Salam, described a gruesome scene in which insurgents beheaded and dismembered the soldiers after dragging their bodies behind pickup trucks.
"It's something that we are against," Qaraghuli said. "But what could we do? It happened."
Those accounts could not be independently confirmed, though U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledged privately that the killings had been particularly brutal.
According to a report on the Web site of the Houston Chronicle, Menchaca's uncle, Mario Vasquez, said military officials told him early Tuesday morning that the two soldiers had been beheaded.
The two soldiers were the first to be classified as "duty status and whereabouts unknown," since Sgt. Keith "Matt" Maupin, who disappeared after an attack on his convoy in April 2004. He subsequently appeared in a video made by insurgents, who later released another video purporting to show his execution. The military called the footage inconclusive and continues to classify him as missing. Eleven American civilians, most of them contractors, are also considered to be missing in the country, Caldwell said.
Also Tuesday, U.S. military officials said they had killed a senior member of al-Qaeda in Iraq during an airstrike on Friday in the same area where the two Army privates vanished.
Mansur Sulayman Mansur Khalif al-Mashadani, an Iraqi known as Sheik Mansur, was a "key leader" of al-Qaeda in Iraq with "excellent religious, military and leadership credentials within that organization," said Caldwell. Mashadani, in his mid-thirties, had studied religion in Jordan before rising to be the religious emir for all of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Caldwell said.
"We do think his death will significantly continue to impact on the ability of this organization to regenerate and reorganize itself," Caldwell said.
After tracking Mashadani, U.S. forces moved to capture him, prompting Mashadani and two other people to flee in a vehicle, which was destroyed by a U.S. airstrike, said Caldwell.
Mashadani had been captured by U.S. forces in July 2004 and released that fall, Caldwell said, because he was not considered "a threat to Iraqi citizens or coalition forces." Mashadani joined al-Qaeda in Iraq after his release, he said.
On Tuesday, the U.S. military issued a statement saying it had killed 15 "terrorists" and detained three suspects during simultaneous raids near Baqubah aimed at pursuing a suspected senior member of al-Qaeda in Iraq. After being fired on from a rooftop, U.S. forces shot back and killed nine armed insurgents, and gunfire from supporting aircraft killed two others in a nearby building, the statement said.
The raids yielded 10 AK-47 assault rifles, a shotgun, a pistol and a crate of explosives, military officials said.
A different account of the incident was provided by witnesses, family members of the dead and a Sunni Muslim member of the Iraqi parliament, Mohammed al-Diani, who called the raids a "barbaric bombing" of civilians and children. Diani called on the Iraqi cabinet to investigate.
Hadi al-Azzawi, a press officer for a human rights organization in Baghdad who said he witnessed the incident, said two of the dead were young boys, ages 10 and 12, and a police officer denied any weapons were present at the scene.
When asked about the differing account, Caldwell denied there were any civilian casualties in what he described as "an extremely long firefight."
Violence continued in Baghdad despite efforts to tighten security. Four explosions detonated within an hour Tuesday morning in and around Baghdad, killing 13 people and wounding 39, said Col. Adil Saeed al-Samarai of the Interior Ministry.
In the southern city of Basra, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a home for the elderly, killing five people and wounding 15, said Samarai.
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Bassam Sebti, Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.