The U.S. military is investigating whether the kidnapping, killing and mutilation of two American soldiers was carried out in retaliation for an alleged rape and murder of an Iraqi woman by another member of the same unit three months earlier, a military official said Tuesday.
The incidents occurred in nearby towns and the soldiers involved were in the same unit. The bodies of the two American soldiers and at least one Iraqi were mutilated. A third U.S. soldier was killed during the kidnapping of his comrades.
The official, citing results of a preliminary military investigation, also said military officers had forced the chief suspect in the rape case out of the Army before the accusation against him came to light because they believed he could pose a threat to Iraqi civilians.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because investigations of both incidents are incomplete.
Military officials initially believed that the three soldiers attacked in the town of Yousifiya were selected because they were vulnerable when separated from the rest of their unit. But as information about the alleged rape-killing has emerged, so have new theories about the kidnappings-killings.
“Was it a target of opportunity or was it a warning: Don’t do this to our women?” said the military official.
The rarity of kidnappings of U.S. troops -- only one other is missing in Iraq -- and the apparent complexity and brutality of the attack in Yousifiya has investigators looking further into possible connections.
“We are trying to find out if this hit on these three soldiers was a retribution for the rape and murder,” said the official. “I cannot fathom the audacity it would take to do such a complex attack. What sort of rage exists in the populace? Are they saying, ‘We aren’t going to take this from people who do this to our women?’ ”
On Monday, Steven D. Green, 21, a former Army private with the 502nd Infantry Regiment, appeared in federal court in Charlotte, N.C., on charges that he raped and murdered an Iraqi woman in the town of Mahmoudiya. According to accounts provided to investigators by other soldiers, Green dressed in black and took several other soldiers with him to a nearby house with the intent of raping the woman. According to an affidavit submitted by FBI Special Agent Gregor J. Ahlers in support of the arrest warrant, Green killed the woman’s parents and young sister; he and another soldier raped the woman; then he shot her in the head and set her body on fire.
Ahlers said his six-page affidavit was drawn largely from the work of Army investigators. No other current or former soldier has been charged in the case.
Although the incident occurred in March, military officials learned only recently that it might have been carried out by a group of Americans, rather than the insurgents who initially were blamed.
The attack on the three American soldiers working alone at a checkpoint in Yousifiya, near Mahmoudiya, occurred in June. One soldier, Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was killed. Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore., were kidnapped, apparently tortured and killed. Their bodies were found beheaded and mutilated beyond recognition.
It was during counseling after the deaths of the three soldiers that military officials heard the allegations that Americans were responsible for the killing of the four civilians in Mahmoudiya.
By that time, Green had been honorably discharged from the Army. Officially, he was discharged because of a “personality disorder.” But unit commanders removed Green because they feared he posed a threat to Iraqi civilians, said the military official, citing documents produced by investigators.
The other soldiers remain under investigation.
Responding to the allegations against Green, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Tuesday denounced murder or rape of Iraqis as “totally unacceptable.” Appearing on NBC’s “Today Show,” Pace promised that the military would find out what happened in Mahmoudiya.
“We will do the investigations, we will find out what the truth is and, if necessary, we will take those who deserve to be taken to court so they can have their day in court,” Pace said.
Military officials are reeling from a series of allegations of atrocities involving U.S. troops in Iraq. The cases include the slayings in November of 24 civilians in Haditha. The graphic details about the Mahmoudiya case have top officers in Iraq worried that the charges could prove as explosive as the photographs of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Some Iraqi officials have expressed outrage, and the mayor of the area that includes Mahmoudiya has promised his own investigation.
As the American military was wrestling with how to handle the situation, another high-ranking Iraqi official was briefly kidnapped Tuesday on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Gunmen seized the deputy minister of electricity and his 11 bodyguards as they were traveling toward the city in a four-car caravan.
The minister, Raad Hareth, was ambushed by men dressed in security force uniforms at a fake checkpoint and his bodyguards offered no resistance, officials said. He was released Tuesday evening with no official explanation.
Hareth’s kidnapping was the second high-profile abduction in a week. Taiseer Mashhadani, a Sunni member of parliament, was kidnapped in a Shiite neighborhood along with several bodyguards. There has been no word on her whereabouts.
The U.S. military said Tuesday that it had carried out an air assault in Babil province, capturing 12 insurgents, including seven members of a local terrorist network.
The military also said it arrested three Al Qaeda operatives during a raid Monday near Tikrit and that one had been involved in attacks on American and Iraqi forces.
In Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed two police officers and injured four.
Officials said 28 bodies were found in the capital during the day, many of them shot to death and bearing torture marks.
In Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad, a hospital source said two armed men riding a motorcycle killed three men and a woman in various areas of the city. The motive for the killings was unclear.
Times staff writer J. Michael Kennedy contributed to this report.