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San Francisco Chronicle June 21, 2006

Killings of 2 missing GIs possibly a show of force by insurgents, analysts say

By Matthew B. Stannard

The gruesome killings of two captive American soldiers could have been an attempt by the insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq to prove it still is potent despite the death of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in a U.S. attack early this month, some military analysts say.

But if that was their goal, they failed, the analysts said.

The U.S. military recovered on Tuesday the bodies of two missing soldiers from an area it said was rigged with explosives. An Iraqi official said the Americans were tortured and killed in a "barbaric" way.

An insurgent group claimed in a posting on a Web site that the new leader of al Qaeda in Iraq executed the men personally, but it offered no evidence.

"It was an act of weakness," said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org in Washington. "The brevity of their captivity, and the absence of videos of (the soldiers) pleading for their lives, suggested that their captors had little confidence in their ability to keep them in captivity for any extended period of time."

"Al Qaeda virtually has to try for visibility following Zarqawi's death simply to show it is still in existence," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "A few successes, however, mean nothing. In fact, the evident use of torture to get more media visibility may indicate that this is much more a demonstration than any indication of continued strength."

It has not been established that al Qaeda in Iraq was actually responsible for the abduction and apparent deaths of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore.

A third soldier, identified as Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., died in a firefight that preceded the abduction of the other two soldiers. All three were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division.

Coalition forces spotted the bodies late Monday, three days after the men disappeared following an attack on their checkpoint south of the capital, the military said. But troops waited to retrieve the remains until an explosives team cleared the area after an Iraqi civilian warned them to be alert for bombs.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the men had not died from wounds received during the initial battle with the guerrillas. "Due to the condition of their bodies, we do not believe it was by natural cause of death," he said. "It did not appear that they had been mortally wounded and moved to a location and died."

The circumstances of the initial attack remain mysterious. In a country where military vehicles -- even the most heavily armed and armored tanks -- rarely leave fortified areas unless they are traveling in pairs, Caldwell confirmed that the soldiers were alone. An investigation has been opened by Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, chief of day-to-day military operations in Iraq.

Caldwell also said a key al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Mansour Suleiman Mansour Khalifi al-Mashhadani, or Sheikh Mansour, whom he described as the group's "religious emir," died on Friday along with two foreign fighters in the same area where the soldiers' bodies were found. The three were trying to flee in a vehicle.

The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of five insurgent groups led by al Qaeda in Iraq, posted an Internet statement Monday saying al-Zarqawi's successor Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, had "slaughtered" the soldiers.

"It is not clear that AQ (al Qaeda in Iraq) captured them. They could have been handed it over to them, or AQ might simply have laid clear to it," said George Friedman with the private intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting. "We don't know that this was a planned operation against a properly organized command post or some fortuitous circumstance. Therefore, you can't judge the capabilities of post-Zarqawi AQ from this."

"If it was AQI, the audience is more likely ... AQI itself, to show themselves and their followers -- who are probably very shaken at this point -- 'We're not out of this yet,' " said Kalev Sepp, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

David Brannan, a colleague of Sepp's at the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense & Security, said the short time between the apparent capture of the men and their deaths also suggests an organization in turmoil, unable to move and hide as easily as it once did.

"That they killed these men so quickly does also lead me to believe that the pressure coalition forces were putting on them must have been pretty effective -- making it very difficult to hold (the U.S. soldiers) for a long time for more political uses," he said. "If the pressure had not been so extreme, they might have made multiple tapes as they have in the past with other captives/hostages."

The deaths were tragic, Brannan emphasized, but in scale they did not come close to the hundreds of victims of past al-Zarqawi-led bombings of mosques in Najaf or Baghdad.

Violence was unabated Tuesday. In the southern city of Basra, an 18-year-old Sunni wearing an explosives belt blew himself up in a home for the elderly as people lined up to collect their monthly pensions. Two elderly women were killed and three people were wounded.

In west Baghdad, a car bomb killed five Iraqis and injured 11 other people. In the predominantly Shiite Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, another car bomb exploded near a wholesale market, killing four and wounding 16.


Copyright 2006, San Francisco Chronicle