Al Qaeda in Iraq Leader Killed in Airstrike Near Where U.S. Troops Went Missing

A key Al Qaeda in Iraq leader described as the group's "religious emir" was killed in a U.S. airstrike hours before two American soldiers went missing and in the same area, the military said Tuesday.

Mansour Suleiman Mansour Khalifi al-Mashhadani, or Sheik Mansour, and two foreign fighters were killed as they tried to flee in a vehicle near the town of Youssifiyah, in the so-called Sunni "Triangle of Death."

U.S. coalition forces had been tracking al-Mashhadani for some time, American military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said in announcing his death. He said al-Mashhadani was an Iraqi, 35 to 37 years old, and that one of the men killed with him was an Al Qaeda cell leader identified as Abu Tariq.

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The three men were killed just hours before an insurgent attack on a traffic checkpoint near Youssifiyah, by a Euphrates River canal. One U.S. soldier was killed in the attack and two were reported missing afterward.

Two bodies believed to be those of the missing men — Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore., were recovered in the same area.

Caldwell said the Iraqi militant played a key religious and recruiting role in the group. The spokesman said Mansour was linked to the senior leadership, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a June 7 U.S. airstrike, and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the man the U.S. military has identified as Zarqawi's replacement.

Mansour "reportedly served as a right-hand man of Zarqawi's, and also served as a liaison between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the various tribes in the Youssifiyah area, as well as playing a key role in their media operations," Caldwell said.

Citing intelligence sources, Caldwell also said Mansour was responsible for the shooting down of a coalition aircraft this spring.

The U.S. military captured Mansour in July 2004 because of his ties to the militant groups Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Sunna, but released him because he was not deemed an important terror figure at the time, the spokesman said.

The militant joined Al Qaeda in Iraq sometime in the fall of 2004, Caldwell said. He displayed photos that purportedly showed Mansour with a mustache before his death and with a battered face and one eye closed after he was killed. Another photo identified Mansour as a masked figure sitting on the floor with Zarqawi.

A document seized from an Al Qaeda hideout and released by National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie that portrayed the Iraqi insurgency as being in "bleak" shape was directly linked to Mansour, Caldwell said.