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Massive Search Effort Underway for Two Missing U.S. Soldiers

June 19, 2006 at 6:05 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: John Burns, welcome. Thanks for being with us.

It was announced today that 8,000 American and Iraqi troops are in involved in this search for the two missing, kidnapped American servicemen. What does this search consist of, that it uses that kind of manpower?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times: Well, Margaret, it looks as though this is the most intensive American manhunt in the 39 months since American troops captured Baghdad.

We’re told that they’re searching, of course, by land, house-to-house searches. They have, quote, “cleared” 12 villages. People down there have told the New York Times that large numbers of men have been detained.

They have Predator unmanned aerial drones watching from the sky. They have fighter combat aircraft. They have larger surveillance aircraft involved.

The spread of the manhunt has gone beyond the immediate vicinity of the village of Karolgol (ph) where this occurred, which was a well-known al-Qaida stronghold, and the neighboring town of Yusufiya, and has gone north and west up the Euphrates River, towards Fallujah. So it’s now spread considerably.

Eight thousand men represent a pretty large proportion of the 61,000 American and Iraqi troops and police in the Baghdad area. This is just on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, so it’s a very strong, heavy commitment.

We’re told that, amongst other things, American forces have switched off the power to some of these villages, that they’ve switched off the water to some of them. We’re told by the American military command that they will not accept embeds from American media organizations in Baghdad, which were, of course, if you need to go and watch this, because they say the TTP — that’s the tactics, techniques and procedures involved — are among the most classified in the American infantry. That tells us that they’re playing real hardball.

Who claimed responsibility?

MARGARET WARNER: And what is known about this group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping? And does the U.S. military think that's a legitimate claim?

JOHN BURNS: They're doubtful about that. The group is called the Mujahideen Shura Council. It's an umbrella group, a sort of holding company whose existence was disclosed a few months ago. It includes al-Qaida in Iraq; it includes other disparate, rather shadowy groups, like the Revenge Brigade, the Horror Brigade (ph).

But the statement that they made is itself somewhat unconvincing. It's very general in nature. It says that -- it speaks about the two American soldiers having been kidnapped, and then it says that -- events were still assuring the weakness of American intelligence, that mocks the American military action.

It says, "The strongest state in the world will return defeated and frustrated from these efforts, and we will provide you with more details on this incident in the next few days, if God will." Now, this could simply be propaganda; it may be that they really do not know anything about this operation.

But one thing that is interesting, if, in fact, they do know that these men are being held, then why no videotape? That's been the usual procedure. We've usually seen kidnapped journalists, kidnapped aid workers, and, indeed, the one American soldier who survived long enough in the kidnapping to be videotaped, appear on tape within a matter of hours sometimes, certainly within a matter of days. With some days into this, no videotape.

Why now? One theory would be that they, whoever are holding these two guys, are trapped, or at least they are in some way not able to move a videotape recording out to the people of Al-Jazeera and other networks in Baghdad that usually transmit them.

What led them to be kidnapped?

MARGARET WARNER: John, remarkably this is only the fourth reported kidnapping of an American soldier during this war. What is known about the circumstances in which they found themselves that led them to be kidnapped?

JOHN BURNS: Well, the American military commander has said very little about this, but people who claim to be eyewitnesses -- I have to stress this, because this is one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq. Although it's only 12 or 15 miles southwest of where I'm standing right now, somewhere in that direction, it's extremely dangerous.

It's called the Triangle of Death, so we can't get there. We have to rely on Iraqis who claim to have been eyewitnesses.

They claim that three Humvees were at a traffic control checkpoint, that two of them were drawn forward and away from that checkpoint by an attack coming from an orchard or a grove of some kind, forward of the checkpoint, leaving one Humvee unmanned.

Now, the American military commanders cautioned us to be careful about this, but at least in this account that left four soldiers in a Humvee -- three, at least -- by themselves, which would, of course, be against all the procedures that the U.S. military here follow.

We know now, from the American command statement today, that one of those three, Specialist David Babineau, age 25 of Springfield, Massachusetts, was killed in that secondary attack, if that's how it occurred.

And the two missing soldiers are named as Private First Class Kristian Menchaca -- and his family will forgive me if I mispronounced that -- 23, of Houston, Texas, and Private First Class Thomas L. Tucker, 25, Madras, Oregon.

Trying to distract U.S. soldiers

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, where you are in Baghdad, this is, I think, the sixth day of the security crackdown that Prime Minister Maliki announced with some fanfare last week. On balance, how is it going?

JOHN BURNS: Well, it's very difficult to tell. We know that the technique being used is to close off neighborhood by neighborhood and go through house-to-house searches, so one of the effects that's visible here is terrific traffic tie-ups.

We had one day, Saturday, of a sudden rise in the number of bombings, suicide bombings around Baghdad, six, if I recall correctly. Otherwise, it's been somewhat quieter than any similar six-day period recently, which would suggest that they have, in fact, gone underground, the al-Qaida and other insurgents holding their fire.

Against that, it has to be said that, when you detach 8,000 men and a lot of airpower, as they have for the search for these two missing American soldiers, out of a total of 61,000 in the Baghdad area, clearly, it's going to have some effect on the operational effectiveness of the crackdown that they're trying to mount in Baghdad.

Objectives of the insurgency

JOHN BURNS: And who knows, but other than the killing of Zarqawi last week, which would be a very obvious prompt for this kidnapping, who knows if distracting American forces from the crackdown in Baghdad, which the American commander said is an absolute priority right now, would not have been amongst the objectives of the insurgents in doing this.

MARGARET WARNER: Interesting theory. John Burns of the New York Times, thank you.

JOHN BURNS: Pleasure.