As the mutilated bodies of two American soldiers were flown to the United States in flag-draped coffins Tuesday night, the U.S. military launched a top-level investigation to determine why their vehicle had been alone outside a fortified Army camp when they were abducted.
An Al Qaeda-affiliated group took responsibility for killing the servicemen, whose corpses were found southwest of Baghdad near an electrical plant in Yousifiya, where they had disappeared Friday night.
Iraqi and U.S. military officials said the bodies showed signs of torture. “They were killed in a barbaric way,” said Iraqi Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammed Jassim of the Defense Ministry.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV confirmed that the bodies were believed to be the remains of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore. Caldwell said the military would conduct a complete autopsy to determine the causes of death and to “do DNA testing to confirm that it is in fact them.”
A third soldier, identified as Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass. died in a battle that preceded the abduction of Menchaca and Tucker. All three soldiers were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division and were guarding a canal bridge near their military camp.
In Washington, the suggestion that the soldiers’ bodies were mutilated brought a strong emotional undercurrent to the debate over the Iraq war.
Two weeks ago, President Bush hailed the U.S. military attack resulting in the death of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi as an opportunity to “turn the tide” of the war, and days later he made a congratulatory trip to Baghdad to meet with the new government.
Although careful at first not to describe Zarqawi’s death June 7 as a major step, Bush administration officials grew bolder in the days that followed. Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, described Al Qaeda in Iraq’s pledge to retaliate as “rhetoric” that indicated the organization had been badly damaged. On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated his controversial view, first expressed a year earlier, that the insurgency was in its “last throes.”
The brutal killings of the U.S. soldiers came as other violence in Iraq continued largely unabated, and unsettling television reports throughout the day affected senators in Washington debating proposals for possible troop withdrawals.
“At this point, we’ve lost over 2,500 of our best and bravest under terrible circumstances, and this latest report is just heartbreaking,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “The American troops, God bless them, are doing everything they’re asked to do, but to be out there as just sitting targets for this sectarian violence, this civil war, this insurgency, it’s just unacceptable. It is time for us to start talking about American troops coming home and the Iraqis accepting responsibility for their own future.”
Bush, who was in Vienna to meet with European counterparts, did not address the killings of the soldiers. But top aides deplored their deaths.
“I think it’s a reminder that this is a brutal enemy that does not follow any of the rules,” said Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security advisor. “It attacks civilians for political gain, it provokes sectarian violence, and it really follows no rules of warfare. It’s a very brutal enemy, and it’s a reminder to all of us about what we’re up against.”
The circumstances of the initial attack remain mysterious. In a country where military vehicles, even the most heavily armed tanks, rarely leave fortified areas unless they are traveling at least in pairs, Caldwell confirmed Tuesday that the servicemen were alone.
“We know that there was a single vehicle with three American soldiers when they came under attack,” he said.
The investigation into the circumstances of their capture has been opened by Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, chief of day-to-day military operations in Iraq.
The Mujahedin Shura Council in Iraq, a group affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq, posted a message Tuesday on an Islamist Internet site in which it took responsibility for the killings, but offered no proof of its involvement.
“We have good news coming straight from the battlefield to the nation of Islam,” the statement reads. “We satisfy your wrath by executing the sentence of God -- which is slaughter -- on those two crusader infidel prisoners.”
Caldwell said that U.S. troops found the bodies Monday night but did not immediately recover them, fearing that insurgents might have booby-trapped the area with explosives. U.S. troops established a perimeter and kept watch over the bodies until dawn, when they were able to bring in an explosive ordnance team and remove the remains to a military base.
Tuesday night, the bodies were on a plane bound for Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, home to the U.S. military’s largest mortuary.
A U.S. military source said that some American officials were puzzled that no insurgent recordings of the slayings had surfaced in an attempt reap propaganda from the soldiers’ deaths. The source speculated that the kidnappers might not have been able to distribute a video after U.S. and Iraqi troops conducted an 8,000-troop sweep through the area south of Baghdad that Iraqis call the “triangle of death.”
News of the bodies’ discovery hit the soldiers’ families hard. Menchaca’s uncle, Ken MacKenzie, said on NBC’s “Today” show that he blamed the U.S. government for reacting too slowly to his nephew’s capture and said the military should have agreed to offer $100 million and detainees in return for the soldiers’ lives. There has been no public demand for any ransom in the case, and U.S. policy prohibits striking deals with kidnappers, because it might encourage more abductions.
Kay Fristad, a spokeswoman for the Oregon National Guard, said Tucker’s relatives were still waiting for DNA testing results.
“The family isn’t watching the news reports, so they don’t yet know what’s been reported about the conditions of the bodies,” Fristad said. “That’s something they may have to face later.”
The U.S. military led a massive, three-day search for the missing GIs, utilizing river boats, unmanned drones and nearly a dozen air assaults on suspected insurgent hide-outs. One coalition member died during the search, two suspected insurgents were killed, and 78 other alleged rebels were detained.
Caldwell also announced that a U.S. airstrike Friday had killed a figure he described as a high-ranking Al Qaeda in Iraq operative in Yousifiya named Mansur Sulayman Mansur Khalif Mahsadani, also known as Sheik Mansur. Caldwell said that Mansur, an Iraqi, was a spiritual leader and recruiter for Al Qaeda in Iraq and a close associate of Zarqawi.
Caldwell also held Mansur responsible for the downing of a U.S. helicopter in Yousifiya in May that killed two soldiers. An Internet video showed men dragging what appeared to be the burning body of an American soldier out of the wreckage. The incident happened during a battle that left 40 insurgents dead.
Mansur was detained by U.S. forces in 2004, when he was a member of the insurgent group Ansar al Sunna, and released in the fall of that year, after which he joined Al Qaeda in Iraq. Caldwell said prison officials had determined at the time that “he was not deemed a threat to Iraqi citizens or coalition forces.”
The Yousifiya area has long been known as an Al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold. In the fall, a suicide bomber killed at least 30 people when he detonated his car at the entrance of a hospital, and in April another car bomb killed 11 people at an open-air market. Insurgents have also stymied attempts to build up local Iraqi security forces by twice bombing the local police station.
U.S. military officials said Zarqawi was believed to have occasionally used Yousifiya as a haven. Rebels have been relatively uncontested in the area for a long time, residents said, and were surprised to see such a large presence of U.S. and Iraqi troops there over the weekend.
“They were deployed in each street and alleyway -- you could see a Humvee in front of each house. They are everywhere,” said an Iraqi police officer who lives in Yousifiya. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
An Iraqi army officer stationed in Yousifiya said that U.S. forces had withdrawn from the area Tuesday and that, as they departed, set fire to warehouses near the electricity plant where the bodies were discovered. Yousifiya residents extinguished the fires after the Americans left, the officer said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces continued to pressure suspected insurgents north of Baqubah, near the area where Zarqawi was killed. The U.S. military said that soldiers had killed 15 suspected insurgents during a lengthy gunfight.
A helicopter struck utility wires as it was firing on suspected insurgents during the battle and was forced to make an emergency landing, authorities said. Another U.S. aircraft killed three gunmen as they attempted to attack the downed helicopter, U.S. officials said.
According to a news release, U.S. troops found insurgents hiding among nine women, none of whom were hurt.
That account was questioned by the Muslim Scholars Assn., a group of leading Sunni Arab clerics, which said that several women and children were among those killed in a U.S. airstrike in the Baqubah area. The group also said that U.S. troops took four injured civilians with them, including a 10-year-old.
One resident said that a 12-year-old boy was among the dead.
In west Baghdad, a car bomb killed five Iraqis and injured 11.
In Sadr City, the capital’s predominantly Shiite Muslim slum, another car bomb exploded near a wholesale market, killing four and wounding 16. Basim Chasib, 28, witnessed the attack.
“He left his car and walked across the street,” he said of the assailant. “When he was about 200 meters away, the car detonated.... We were close to the explosion, but flour sacks protected us from the shrapnel.”
Also in Baghdad, two police officers were shot to death in their patrol car.
In the northern oil hub of Kirkuk, gunmen in three cars killed three people near a traffic checkpoint.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang in Vienna and Raheem Salman and Zainab Hussein in Baghdad and correspondents in Baghdad, Baqubah, Taji and Kirkuk contributed to this report.