BAGHDAD, Iraq -- As the mutilated bodies of two American soldiers were flown to the United States in flag-draped coffins last night, the U.S. military launched a top-level investigation to determine why their vehicle had been traveling alone outside a fortified Army camp when they were abducted.
A group affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq took responsibility for killing the servicemen, whose corpses were found 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 of the Iraqi Defense Ministry.
U.S. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV confirmed 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 cause of death and "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 firefight that preceded the abduction. 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.
The circumstances of the initial attack remain mysterious. In a country where military vehicles - even the most heavily armed and impervious tanks - rarely leave fortified areas unless they are traveling in pairs, Caldwell confirmed yesterday that the servicemen were alone.
"We know that there was a single vehicle with three American soldiers when they came under attack," Caldwell said.
The investigation into the circumstances of their capture has been opened by Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, chief of day-to-day military operations in Iraq. The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an al-Qaida-affiliated group, posted a message yesterday on a jihadist Internet site taking 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," read the statement. "We satisfy your wrath by executing the sentence of God - which is slaughter - on those two crusader infidel prisoners."
Caldwell said U.S. troops found the bodies Monday night but did not immediately recover them, fearing that insurgents may 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.
Last night, the bodies were on a plane en route to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware - home of the U.S. military's largest mortuary.
News of the discoveries hit the soldiers' families hard. Menchaca's uncle, Ken MacKenzie, went on NBC's Today show to blame 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 had been no public demand for ransom in the case, and U.S. policy prohibits striking deals with hostage takers on the premise that it would encourage more kidnappings.
Kay Fristad, a spokeswoman for the Oregon National Guard, said Tucker's relatives were still waiting for DNA testing.
"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 using river boats, unmanned drones and nearly a dozen air assaults on suspected insurgent hideouts. 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 killed a figure he described as a high-ranking al-Qaida operative in Yousifiya named Mansour Suleiman Mansour Khalifi al-Mashhadani, also known as Sheik Mansour. Caldwell said that Mansour, an Iraqi, was a spiritual leader and recruiter for al-Qaida in Iraq and a close associate of the late insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Caldwell also said Mansour was responsible for the downing of a U.S. helicopter in Yousifiya in May that killed two soldiers.
Mansour, then a member of the insurgent group Ansar al-Sunnah Army, was detained by U.S. forces in 2004 and released in the fall of that year, after which time he joined al-Qaida. Caldwell said that prison officials determined that "he was not deemed a threat to Iraqi citizens or coalition forces."
An Iraqi army officer stationed in Yousifiya said that U.S. forces withdrew from the area yesterday and 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 al-Qaida insurgents north of Baqouba, the same area where al-Zarqawi was killed this month. The U.S. military said soldiers killed a total of 15 suspected insurgents during a lengthy firefight that moved between at least two buildings.
A helicopter struck utility wires as it was firing on suspected insurgents during the battle and was forced to make an emergency landing. Another U.S. aircraft killed three gunmen as they attempted to attack the downed helicopter, U.S. officials said. According to a press release, U.S. troops found insurgents hiding among nine women, none of whom were injured.
That account was questioned by the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, a group of leading Sunni Arab clerics, which said that several women and children were among those killed in a U.S. airstrike in northeast Baqouba.
The group also said that U.S. troops took four injured civilians with them, including a 10-year-old.
Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.