Al-Qaida in Iraq posted an Internet statement claiming that Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, the successor to the group’s leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed the two soldiers, using a word for slaughter that is commonly understood to mean beheading. The statement has not been authenticated.
U.S. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the American military spokesman, said the cause of death was “undeterminable at this point.” But the director of Iraqi defense military’s operation room, Maj. Gen. Adbul-Aziz Mohammed, said, “With great regret, they were killed in a barbaric way.”
Caldwell said the remains were believed to be those of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore. The bodies will be brought to the United States for DNA tests to confirm their identities.
Around 8,000 American and Iraqi troops engaged in an intense search for the soldiers after the two went missing following an insurgent ambush on a checkpoint in Youssifiyah, southwest of Baghdad. The Sunni Arab region is known as the Triangle of Death because of frequent ambushes of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in the area.
The attack killed Spc. David J. Babineau, 25 of Springfield, Mass. The three soldiers were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. According to a farmer claiming to have witnessed the attack, masked gunmen swarmed the checkpoint, killing the driver of a Humvee and taking the two other soldiers captive. The account could not be independently verified.
The two men’s bodies were found at a nearby electricity plant on Monday but could not be recovered until Tuesday morning because of the “unstable condition” of the area. During the search, one American soldier was killed and 12 wounded.
The message claiming responsibility for the deaths was posted on a Web site of the Mujahadeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization composed of al-Qaida in Iraq
and several other Sunni militant groups.
“With God Almighty’s blessing, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer carried out the verdict of the Islamic court” calling for the death of the soldiers, the statement said.
The U.S. military has identified al-Muhajer as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian who had trained in one of the terrorist camps in Afghanistan run by al-Qaida. He had been a close associate of al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who was killed in an American air strike June 7.
On Tuesday, the U.S. military said it had killed Mansur al-Mashhadani, one of the top five al-Qaida leaders in Iraq and one of al-Zarqawi’s right hand men, during an air strike Friday near Youssifiyah, a few hours before the two American soldiers went missing.