BAGHDAD -- Two US soldiers, missing for three days since their abduction in an insurgent stronghold south of Baghdad, were found dead, a military spokesman said yesterday. An Iraqi official said the Americans had been tortured and killed in a ``barbaric" way.
A top US commander ordered an investigation into why the men were isolated from a larger force in such a dangerous area.
The remains of the soldiers -- Private First Class Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston and Private First Class Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore. -- were recovered near a power plant in the town of Youssifiyah, where they had been operating a vehicle checkpoint that came under attack Friday, Major General William Caldwell said.
A third soldier, Specialist David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., died in the initial assault.
Caldwell said that it was clear the soldiers had died of wounds suffered in captivity, rather than at the site of the attack on the checkpoint, but that the cause of death could not be immediately determined.
He declined to describe the condition of the soldiers' bodies. Other officials suggested that the soldiers were so wounded or mutilated that they could not be positively identified.
The director of the Iraqi Defense Ministry's operation room, Major General Abdul-Aziz Mohammed, said the bodies showed signs of having been tortured. ``With great regret, they were killed in a barbaric way," he said. He provided no further details.
According to residents of Youssifiyah and a relative of one of the victims, the soldiers were beheaded.
The bodies will be flown to Kuwait and then to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for full autopsies and DNA testing to ensure they were identified correctly, the military said in a statement.
As 8,000 US and Iraqi troops scoured the region, a tip from a local resident led them to the soldiers' bodies after dark Monday night. Because the informant warned that the bodies were booby-trapped, they were not removed until after dawn, the military said.
One US soldier was killed and 12 wounded during the three-day search across a vast area south of Baghdad, while two insurgents were killed and 78 detained, the military said.
The killings of the two privates raised questions about why such low-ranking troops were left alone, backed by a single armored Humvee, in a region Caldwell described Thursday as ``an insurgent hotbed" and the most dangerous place in Iraq for US forces after Baghdad and Ramadi. Even in safer areas, US troops generally travel in convoys to provide support in case insurgents attack or a vehicle breaks down.
Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, the commander of US ground forces in Iraq, has ordered an investigation into procedures used that night. ``They are looking at the entire situation," Caldwell said.
To the consternation of US officials, who are careful to withhold casualty details until the soldiers' families can be notified, the deaths were first reported by Major General Mohammed.
The Mujahideen Shura Council, a collection of several insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed in an Internet statement to have ``slaughtered" the two soldiers, suggesting they were beheaded. The group, which had vowed revenge on US forces after the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi this month, had on Monday claimed to have abducted the two privates.
The Shura Council's statement said that Zarqawi's successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, had personally killed the soldiers.
Asked yesterday whether the Internet statements were credible, Caldwell responded: ``Absolutely not" and added that based on a ``preliminary analysis," there was ``no reason to believe" the group's claims.
In telephone interviews, two Youssifiyah residents, Muyasar Ghalib al-Qaraghuli, 19, and a tribal leader who gave his name only as Abu Salam, described a gruesome scene in which insurgents beheaded and dismembered the soldiers after dragging their bodies behind pickup trucks.
``It's something that we are against," Qaraghuli said. ``But what could we do? It happened."
Those accounts could not be independently confirmed, though US and Iraqi officials acknowledged privately that the killings had been particularly brutal.
Menchaca's uncle, Mario Vasquez, said military officials told him early yesterday morning that the two soldiers had been beheaded, according to a report on the website of the Houston Chronicle.
Eleven American civilians, most of them contractors, are also considered to be missing in the country, Caldwell said.
Also yesterday , US military officials said they had killed a senior member of Al Qaeda in Iraq during an airstrike Friday in the same area where the two Army privates were missing.
Mansur Sulayman Mansur Khalif al-Mashadani, an Iraqi known as Sheik Mansur, was a ``key leader" of Al Qaeda in Iraq with ``excellent religious, military, and leadership credentials within that organization," Caldwell said.
``We do think his death will significantly continue to impact on the ability of this organization to regenerate and reorganize itself," he said.
Violence continued in Baghdad despite efforts to tighten security. Four explosions detonated within an hour yesterday morning in and around Baghdad, killing 13 people and wounding 39, said Colonel Adil Saeed al-Samarai of the Interior Ministry.
In the southern city of Basra, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a home for the elderly, killing five people and wounding 15, Samarai said.
The US military yesterday said it had killed 15 ``terrorists" and detained three suspects during raids near Baqouba aimed at pursuing a suspected senior member of Al Qaeda in Iraq. After being fired on from a rooftop, US forces shot back and killed nine armed insurgents, the statement said.
A different account was provided by witnesses, family of the dead, and a Sunni Muslim member of the Iraqi parliament, Mohammed al-Diani, who called the raids a ``barbaric bombing" of civilians and children.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.