Group claims to hold U.S. soldiers

It has al-Qaida links

thousands search for 2 Americans


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A group affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq said yesterday that it had kidnapped two American soldiers who are being searched for by thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops in an area known as "the triangle of death."

Seven other U.S. soldiers were wounded during the search, the top military spokesman in Baghdad said. Details weren't immediately announced.

More than 8,000 American and Iraqi security personnel were looking for the soldiers, who disappeared Friday. Three teams of divers searched the nearby Euphrates River. The military used planes, boats, helicopters and unmanned drones "to ensure the most thorough search possible on the ground, in the air and in the water," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said. "We are using every means at our disposal."

The two soldiers disappeared after gunmen attacked a checkpoint near Yousifiya, southwest of the capital. They were identified as 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., was killed during the fight at the checkpoint.

All three soldiers were assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division's 502nd Infantry Regiment.

"Words cannot express the sadness we feel at the loss of Spc. Babineau and the uncertainty the families of Pfc. Menchaca and Pfc. Tucker must be experiencing," Caldwell said in a statement. "Our deepest sympathy goes out to their families."

3 soldiers charged

In Baghdad yesterday, the U.S. Army said three soldiers have been charged in the deaths of three Iraqis who were in military custody in northern Iraq last month.

The Multinational Corps-Iraq said three members of 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division have been charged in the deaths of three male detainees during an operation in northern Salahuddin province May 9.

"A noncommissioned officer and two soldiers each have been charged with violating several articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice including murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, communicating a threat, and obstructing justice," an announcement said.

In the search for the two soldiers who disappeared Friday, security forces killed three suspected rebels and detained 34 others yesterday southwest of Baghdad.

The area around Yousifiya, which is dotted by farms, date palms and orange orchards, is a rebel stronghold widely known as the "triangle of death." U.S. soldiers are often attacked in the town, and there has been no functioning police force since insurgents twice bombed the police department. Residents say killings are commonplace and many families have fled the area because of the violence.

Mayor Muayed Fadil, 50, said Iraqi soldiers provide some protection for government offices downtown but rebels run rampant on the outskirts of Yousifiya.

Checkpoints and U.S. patrols do little to counter the violence, he said. Fearful residents have stopped talking to their neighbors and are instead hiding inside their houses.

"Life is limited in Yousifiya because of terrorism," Fadil said. "People are living in horror at night because of the terrorist cells."

The Mujahedeen Shura Council, a group linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, posted a statement on the Internet claiming responsibility for what they said was a kidnapping of the two missing U.S. soldiers, but it offered no proof, such as pictures of the soldiers or their identification cards.

"The American Army, using different kinds of machines and armor, raided the area where the incident took place, but the army of `the world's strongest country' returned without success, humiliated," the statement said.

Another U.S. soldier has long been missing in Iraq. Sgt. Keith M. Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, was captured during an ambush in April 9, 2004. About three months later, a videotape was released showing a man being shot in the back of the head and falling into a shallow grave. A narrator said the man was Maupin, but the victim's face was not shown.

While troops searched the rural area southwest of Baghdad yesterday, violence continued elsewhere despite a recent security crackdown.

A car bomb exploded at an Iraqi army checkpoint in Baghdad, killing five and injuring nine, authorities said. Another car bomb, aimed at police commandos in the southwestern part of the city, killed two officers and three civilians, and injured five others. A third car bomb exploded minutes later in a market in a southern neighborhood, killing six civilians and injuring 20.

A roadside bomb southwest of Hillah killed a civilian and injured as many as eight others, local police said.

Rewards offer

In Kirkuk, security forces flooded roads and set up new checkpoints, local officials said. Iraqi police distributed pictures of suspected insurgents with ties to al-Qaida in Iraq, promising a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrests of five top rebels.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military continued a sweep in the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, where hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi troops moved into the eastern section of the violent city in search of guerrillas, the Associated Press reported from the scene.

The operation is intended to install U.S. and Iraqi troops in an area where insurgents have frequently launched attacks.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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