- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The U.S. military yesterday recovered the mutilated bodies of two Army privates kidnapped by terrorists Friday night from a checkpoint south of Baghdad.

The bodies were so horribly disfigured that final identification will require DNA testing. But U.S. military officials in Baghdad said the bodies, found in a booby-trapped area, were thought to be those of Pfc. Thomas Lowell Tucker, 25, and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, although official confirmation awaited the notification of families.

“With great regret — they were killed in a barbaric way,” Iraqi Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Mohammed told reporters.

The Associated Press in Baghdad reported that a Web site connected to the terror group al Qaeda in Iraq posted a statement, saying the two “crusaders” were “slaughtered” by Abu Ayyub al-Masri. The word “slaughtered” often means the terror victims were beheaded. The U.S. has identified al-Masri as successor to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda in Iraq leader who died June 7 in a strike by the U.S. military.

“We are all very much aware of the atrocities they commit,” said Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, chief military spokesman in Baghdad, referring to the al Qaeda group. “It pains us what some service members may go through.”

The soldiers’ remains were being taken to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where a forensic laboratory would perform the DNA testing.

The abductions spurred questions inside the U.S. command on security procedures for soldiers on patrol.

Why, commanders are asking, was a small group of junior enlisted soldiers in Humvees left alone to man a checkpoint near Yusufiyah in a particularly dangerous area of Iraq dubbed the Triangle of Death? The area in the Anbar province is a hotbed of Sunni Muslim insurgents and foreign terrorists who constantly attack U.S. forces.

“My first question is: Where were the noncommissioned officers?” said a retired Army general who has spoken to active-duty officers about the incident. “Why were only privates protecting a checkpoint? The assumption you have to make is they were part of a platoon that was broken up to watch numerous checkpoints. This again goes back to the same thing: We don’t have enough troops.”

Soldiers and Marines in Iraq typically travel in large enough numbers to repel an attack by setting up a defensive perimeter and calling in a quick-reaction force of armored vehicles and combat aircraft as backup.

Supply convoys typically travel under a heavy guard that includes armored Humvees, Bradley fighting vehicles and attack helicopters.

Gen. Caldwell said details of what happened in the ambush at 7:55 p.m. Friday will not be released until the slain soldiers’ families are briefed and added that Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the top tactical commander in Iraq, has ordered an investigation into procedures followed that night.

The Associated Press quoted an Iraqi farmer as saying insurgents created a diversion to draw some soldiers away from the checkpoint and then attacked the three remaining troops — killing one and capturing two. The farmer’s account could not be confirmed, the AP said.

Killed in the attack was Spc. David J. Babineau, 25. The three belonged to the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky.

Security procedures have not always prevented combat deaths, but they have blunted kidnapping attempts. Only one other soldier, Army Reserve Sgt. Keith M. Maupin, has been captured by insurgents since Iraq fell to the allies in April 2003. The Army lists him as missing in action.

The command started an extensive manhunt for the missing soldiers during the weekend, dispatching 8,000 American and Iraqi personnel to comb the Triangle area south of Baghdad.

“We have surged intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and employed planes, boats, helicopters and [unmanned aerial vehicles] to ensure the most thorough search possible,” Gen. Caldwell told reporters on Monday.

He added yesterday, “We basically have turned that area upside down.”

But it was an Iraqi civilian, not the military, who first spotted the bodies.

Though insurgents had booby-trapped the area in hopes of killing rescuers, troops cordoned off the area and neutralized the bombs.

“Recovery of the remains was initiated last night and was completed this morning,” the U.S. military said. “Coalition forces had to carefully maneuver their way through numerous improvised explosive devices leading up to and around the site.”

At a press conference yesterday, Gen. Caldwell said the sweep resulted in the killing of Mansur al Mashhadani, whom he identified as in the top five of the al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership.

“He was a right-hand man to Zarqawi,” he said.

Mashhadani, described as the religious emir for al Qaeda in Iraq, operated in the Yusufiyah area. Before the kidnapping, U.S. forces had him under surveillance. A decision was made to arrest him and troops moved in on his location. He fled in a vehicle and was killed by an air strike, Gen. Caldwell said.

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