- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

BAGHDAD — An al Qaeda-linked group said yesterday that it had kidnapped two American soldiers who were reported missing south of Baghdad, where 8,000 Iraqi and U.S. troops were conducting a massive search.

Seven U.S. servicemen have been wounded during the search, said U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell. He said the military had killed three suspected insurgents and detained 34 others during the operation.

The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella group that includes al Qaeda in Iraq, said it was holding the two privates — one from Texas and the other from Oregon — as well as four Russian diplomats kidnapped June 3 in Baghdad. It also claimed to have killed a fifth Russian.

The message appeared on an Islamic Web site known for publishing messages from insurgent groups in Iraq. U.S. officials have said they could not confirm what had happened to the two soldiers, who disappeared Friday evening after an attack that killed a third U.S. soldier.

The Web posting said: “Your brothers in the military wing of the Mujahedeen Shura Council kidnapped the two American soldiers near Youssifiya.”

It did not identify the soldiers.

The Defense Department identified the missing men as Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore., and the dead soldier as Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass. They were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Ky.

Gunmen kidnapped the four Russian diplomats near their embassy in Baghdad’s Mansour district after firing on their car and killing an embassy employee.

“God has enabled the lions of monotheism to arrest four Russian diplomats in Iraq and kill the fifth,” said a statement from the group on the same Web site.

It condemned Russian actions in Chechnya and criticized its presence in Baghdad.

“The Russian government sends its diplomats to Iraq to support the crusaders’ project, led by America, and to provide international backing and legitimacy to the exhausted Iraqi government.”

The Mujahedeen Shura Council is a grouping of several insurgent forces, including al Qaeda in Iraq. Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was killed this month, helped create the council in January, apparently to give an Iraqi face to his movement, made up mainly of foreign fighters.

Fighter jets, helicopters, unmanned drones, boats and dive teams are being used to search for the two men, Gen. Caldwell said. He did not comment on whether they had been seized by terrorists, saying only that they were listed as “duty status and whereabouts unknown.”

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the soldiers appeared to have been taken prisoner.

Ahmed Khalaf Falah, a farmer who said he witnessed the abduction, told the Associated Press that the two soldiers had been captured by seven masked, heavily armed gunmen during the attack near Youssifiya, about 12 miles south of Baghdad.

U.S. and Iraqi troops, meanwhile, pushed into an eastern section of the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi in a campaign to gradually bolster their presence in city neighborhoods that for months largely have been under insurgent control.

A U.S. gunship fired on suspected insurgents early in the operation, U.S. commanders said. Six men were thought to have been killed, and sporadic exchanges of gunfire echoed throughout the neighborhood in the morning. No U.S. casualties were initially reported.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, meanwhile, said Iraqi forces will take over security next month in a southern province where Japanese troops are based. The decision, announced after Mr. al-Maliki met with Japan’s ambassador, does not necessarily mean that any coalition forces will be withdrawn from Muthanna province.

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