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Two Missing U.S. Troops Found Dead in Iraq

June 20, 2006 at 6:05 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: John Burns, welcome. How and where were the bodies of these two missing U.S. soldiers found?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times: Well, first of all, Margaret, I want to emphasize that the U.S. military command here is being very cautious.

They’re referring to two sets of remains that were found, but they’re also saying that they believe them to be the missing soldiers, Private First Class Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston and Private First Class Thomas Lowell Tucker, 25, of Madras, Oregon.

What the American military commanders told us tonight is that a search that had been under way, as you know, since Friday evening at 7:55 p.m. local when these two soldiers disappeared.

Soldiers suffered severe injuries

JOHN BURNS: Last night, Monday night, resulted in the finding of two bodies, two sets of remains, that had suffered what the commander is calling "severe trauma." They were found near a power plant about three miles from where they were abducted just outside the town of Yusufiya. That's about 12 to 15 miles southwest of where I'm standing now.

The command says that to reach those bodies took them about 12 hours because of numerous bombs that were planted along the access way to where the bodies were found. We're told that there were 19 bombs and that one of them exploded under a U.S. military vehicle without any further casualties to the American troops.

The American military statement tonight says that the bodies are being flown, even as we speak, from the military morgue in Baghdad to Kuwait where they will then be flown onward to the Dover Air Force Base in the United States, in Delaware, which, as you know, is the principal forensic center for American military casualties.

And this, I think, is quite indicative of how severe the injuries that these two servicemen suffered, said that where the remains will be subjected to DNA testing to verify their identity.

Statement from al-Quaida on website

JOHN BURNS: Now, we have a statement from al-Qaida on a Web site, the al-Hesba Web site. It's a password-protected jihadist Web site, al-Qaida in Iraq. And this is where the story really takes us back into the eighth century, a truly barbaric world.

It says that the newly named leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, that is to say the people the American command believe succeeded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when he was killed in a bombing last week, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, personally executed these two American soldiers. And it uses the phrase "nahr," which is an Arabic word which is usually used to connote the cutting of the throat of a sheep or a goat in a ritual beheading.

I'm very sorry to have to tell you this, because this must be extremely painful for the families involved, but it looks as though these two soldiers were probably beheaded or at least subjected to some sort of ritual throat- cutting of that kind, and that it may even be that the bodies were decapitated and that may be the reason why they cannot at this moment positively identify them.

Retaliation for al-Zarqawi bombing

MARGARET WARNER: Could they tell how long these soldiers had been dead?

JOHN BURNS: If they can, they've not told us. I imagine they would want to hear the report from the forensic laboratory before they told us this.

But we know there were 8,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers conducting this search. We know that the bodies were found less than three miles from where they were abducted.

The mystery is: How did the people who abducted them and committed these two barbaric murders, how did they find the time to lay bombs around these bodies and not be detected when, as the American military command has told us, they had Predator drones overhead, they had fighter bombers overhead, they had all the panoply of high technology that the United States military can deploy?

It does begin to look very much -- if what the al-Qaida Web site is claiming, it begins to look very much as if this was in retaliation for the bombing last week that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

This will stiffen military resolve

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said last night when we spoke that, when this same group was claiming responsibility for the abduction, that the U.S. military didn't put a lot of credence in that. Do they put more credence now in this claim of responsibility for the killing?

JOHN BURNS: Well, of course, there is a question mark over this. The Web site, this al-Hesba Web site, is where the Mujahedeen Shura Council, the umbrella group of which al-Qaida in Iraq is part, posts its messages.

This message was quite specific, whereas last night's message was very general. It was the generality of last night's message among other things that left the American military command to believe that it might just be propaganda, but we do now have the grisly fact that these bodies have been found.

And so you might say that lends some credence to this statement, but this is a very dark and obscure world we're peering into here. And very little about this is certain other than that these two soldiers were abducted, brutally murdered, and that they are now, as the United States military said tonight, on their final journey home.

The American military spokesman, General Caldwell, who held a briefing this afternoon, I think expressed the grief and the gloom that has settled over the 130,000 American troops here when he said, "It pains us to realize what fellow servicemen go through. Please keep both of these families in your prayers."

This is a very traumatic incident for the American military. My guess is, having spent a lot of time with the troops, that it will not demoralize them so much as it will stiffen resolve, but certainly it's a very difficult day.

MARGARET WARNER: John Burns at the New York Times, thank you.