BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military on Tuesday revealed a complex trail of evidence and tips that led to the recovery of the booby-trapped remains of two American soldiers who went missing after an attack in the volatile Sunni area south of Baghdad.
But Maj. Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said it was too early in the investigation to comment on whether the soldiers died in the attack or were abducted and killed later.
He also declined to give more details about the June 16 that left the U.S. Army Pfc. Kristian Menchaca of Houston and Pfc. Thomas Tucker of Madras, Ore., missing. Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was found dead at the site.
"We've brought in forensics experts and criminal investigators to get to the bottom of this and we will not stop until we've got the facts," he said at a news conference in Baghdad.
The bodies of Menchaca and Tucker were found the evening of June 19 after an exhaustive four-day search by 8,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces, but they could not be recovered until the next morning after explosives experts cleared the area following an Iraqi warning bombs had been planted there.
The military initially said three, then later said six roadside bombs had to be dismantled, and it said the brutalized bodies were found tied together with a bomb between one of the soldier's legs.
"The engineers successfully cleared the IED and the surrounding area to allow recovery of the remains," according to a military statement issued Monday.
A U.S. military official said last week that one and possibly both young men were tortured and beheaded.
Thurman, who has ordered a formal investigation into the June 16 attack, would not discuss the condition of the bodies, which were found near a power plant, except to say they had been "brutalized." The region is commonly known as the Triangle of Death for frequent ambushes on U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The remains were sent to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for DNA testing and the identities were confirmed.
The military had said that one other soldier was killed and 12 soldiers were wounded in the search effort. Monday's statement, however, said no troops were killed in the search.
It also said more than 300 documents, CDs, videotapes and a global positioning system were seized. Thurman said he had not seen any videos of the killings of the soldiers.
Key evidence was found on the second day of the search in a truck discovered at the power plant and near a canal along the entrance of the complex indicating the soldiers had been there, Thurman said, although he said it was not known at that point whether the soldiers were dead or alive. He also said tips from detainees and local residents helped guide the search.
The Army has said the three soldiers were left alone while other vehicles in their patrol moved out of sight to inspect traffic.
Earlier reports reported the three Humvees became separated under fire. Those reports now appear to be wrong, Lt. Col. Michelle Martin-Hing, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, has said.
But many questions have been raised about how the three U.S. soldiers, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky., ended up alone in a Humvee to guard a hydraulic bridge at a Euphrates River canal.
Army protocols are designed to prevent such attacks, and few American soldiers have been kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq. Strict military procedures require units to travel in groups of no less than three vehicles, and say at soldiers in a single Humvee should never be alone.
Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for killing the soldiers, and said its heir apparent to slain leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had "slaughtered" them, according to a Web statement that could not be authenticated. The claim was made in the name of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of five insurgent groups.
The bodies were found next to a road near the village of Mufaraji, northwest of Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad, the military said late Monday. The region is commonly known as the Triangle of Death.
Thurman said he did not want to speculate on the motive for the attack, but he said, "I believe that Al Qaeda is associated with a majority of attacks ... in and around the area where we found the soldiers."
Two Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists, including a senior lieutenant, were killed during the search and 36 were detained, including two who admitted they were Al Qaeda members and were captured in the vicinity of the remains, the military said.