Al Qaeda-Linked Group: U.S. Soldiers Killed as Revenge for Alleged Rape-Murders

An Al Qaeda-linked group posted a Web video Tuesday purporting to show the mutilated bodies of two U.S. soldiers, claiming it killed them in revenge for the rape-slaying of a young Iraqi woman by American troops from the same unit.

The Mujahedeen Shura Council previously claimed responsibility for killing the two soldiers, who were snatched in a June 16 attack near the town of Youssifiyah, southwest of Baghdad. A third soldier was killed in the attack.

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But the statement was the first time the group linked the slaying to the rape case.

A statement by the group said the video was released as "revenge for our sister who was dishonored by a soldier of the same brigade."

It said that as soon as fighters heard of the rape-slaying, "they kept their anger to themselves and didn't spread the news, but were determined to avenge their sister's honor."

"God Almighty enabled them to capture two soldiers of the same brigade as this dirty crusader," said the written statement posted along with the video.

The U.S military has charged five soldiers, including two sergeants, in connection to the March 12 alleged rape-murder of an Iraqi woman in the Youssifiyah area and the killing her parents and a younger sister. The U.S. military released the identities of the suspects Monday.

A previously discharged soldier was also arrested in the case last month and charged with rape and murder.

U.S. investigators had said there was no evidence linking the deaths of the three soldiers last month to the alleged rape-slaying.

The U.S. military said Tuesday it condemns "in the strongest of terms" the release of the video showing the two mutilated American soldiers. "It demonstrates the barbaric and brutal nature of the terrorists and their complete disregard for human life," it said in a statement. "Coalition Forces remain resolute in our in commitment to catch the perpetrators of this crime and bring them to justice."

The 4:39 minute video shows two bloodied bodies in torn military uniforms lying near a curb on a bridge over a canal. One of them, partially naked, has been decapitated and his chest cut open. The other's face is bruised, the jaw apparently broken, and his leg has long gashes. Fighters are shown turning the bodies over and lifting the head of the decapitated man.

The video, first reported by the SITE Institute, which monitors extremist Web sites, has audio from previous tapes of Usama bin Laden and slain Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The Mujahedeen Shura Council is an umbrella organization of several Islamic extremist groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq. It claimed responsibility for shooting down a U.S. Apache helicopter in the Youssifiyah area in April.

The bodies of the two soldiers — Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore. — were found on June 20, and the U.S. military said at the time they had been mutilated.

The council had previously issued several statements claiming responsibility for their abduction, then announcing their deaths. But none of the statements mentioned the rape-slaying case, which was made public later in June.

Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Spc. James P. Barker, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard are accused of rape and murder and several other charges as alleged participants. They could face the death penalty if convicted.

A fifth, Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe, is charged with failing to report the attack but is not alleged to have been a direct participant.

The five will face an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, to determine if they should stand trial.

They are charged with conspiring with former soldier Steven D. Green, who was arrested in the case last month in North Carolina. Green has pleaded not guilty to one count of rape and four counts of murder and is being held without bond.

The U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, declined to comment further on details about the attack, saying the investigation continues.

"But they obviously had enough information in the initial investigation to go ahead and charge those four soldiers all with alleged rape, rape, obstruction of justice, housebreaking, arson and the other offenses," he told reporters in Baghdad.

According to an FBI affidavit filed in Green's case, he and at least two others targeted the young woman and her family for a week before the attack, which was not revealed until witnesses came forward in late June.

The soldiers drank alcohol, abandoned their checkpoint, changed clothes to avoid detection and headed to the victims' house, about 200 yards from a U.S. checkpoint in the "Triangle of Death," a Sunni Arab area south of Baghdad known for its violence, the affidavit said.

The affidavit estimated the rape victim was about 25. But a doctor at the Mahmoudiya hospital gave her age as 14. He refused to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Green is accused of raping the woman and killing her and the three other family members, including a girl estimated to be 5 years old. An official familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press that Green set fire to the rape victim's body in an apparent cover-up attempt.

Iraqi authorities identified the rape victim as Abeer Qassim Hamza. The other victims were her father, Qassim Hamza; her mother, Fikhriya Taha; and her sister, Hadeel Qassim Hamza.

The March 12 attack was among the worst in a series of cases of U.S. troops accused of killing and abusing Iraqi civilians.

U.S. officials are concerned the case will strain relations with Iraq's new government and increase calls for changes in an agreement that exempts American soldiers from prosecution in Iraqi courts.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has demanded an independent investigation into the case, which comes after a series of allegations that U.S. troops killed and mistreated Iraqi civilians.