- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The U.S. military has detained 20 persons with knowledge of the brutal deaths of two American soldiers south of Baghdad and thinks al Qaeda in Iraq was responsible, an Army general said yesterday.

Maj. Gen. James Thurman, who commands U.S. operations in and around Baghdad, said at a press conference that more than 8,000 Americans and Iraqis searched for the soldiers after their traffic checkpoint was attacked on June 16.

The bodies of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, and Pfc. Thomas Tucker, 25 were found three days later in a village in the “Triangle of Death,” so called because of the large presence of insurgents. The troops’ bodies had been booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices, and it took demolition teams half a day to clear a path to the bodies. Another soldier, Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, was found killed near the checkpoint.

Asked who was suspected in the killings, Gen. Thurman said, “This is a terrorist and foreign fighter area where al Qaeda operates. And I will tell you I believe al Qaeda is associated with the majority of the attacks in south Baghdad, and in and around the area where we found the soldiers … I think we’ve hurt them very bad down there, and I’ll tell you that. I believe we have.”

The general said investigators are still piecing together what happened on June 16. He declined to say why three junior-rank soldiers were left alone, in one armored Humvee, to man a checkpoint in one of Iraq’s most violent neighborhoods.

He also did not reveal whether the soldiers were killed at the scene and their bodies mutilated or whether they were tortured to death, as an Iraq general has said.

“That’s why we’re investigating it,” Gen. Thurman said. “We go through intensive efforts to look at DNA, to look at autopsies and things like that to make sure that we can determine the cause of death and that sort of business.”

He said searchers captured 36 suspected insurgents, 20 of whom had “direct or indirect links to the attack.”

At the Pentagon, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the man in charge of training and equipping the growing Iraqi security forces (ISF), said that newly minted army battalions are still not able to operate independently of U.S. forces but that they continue to make progress. The ability of the ISF to fight is the key to President Bush being able to order home large number of U.S. troops.

“They are not independent at this point in time,” Gen. Dempsey said. “They will become independent as we see the new government take on some of the issues related to things like national reconciliation, which has the potential to reduce the threat, which then could over time allow them to become more independent in terms of military operations.”

He said the Iraqi army not only has to learn how to fight, but also how to administer to a fighting force with such support activities as pay, promotions, procurement and budgeting.

“If we were having this conversation 18 months ago, there were still U.S. personnel helping Iraq figure out how to pay its soldiers and policemen,” he said. “That entire process has been transitioned over to Iraqis. We have no part in their pay process right now.”

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