Relatives of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Oregon, are reeling as they wait for the results of DNA tests to confirm whether the bodies found in Iraq Monday are those of the missing soldiers, as is feared.
Menchaca and Tucker disappeared Friday during an attack on a checkpoint south of Baghdad, in which another GI was killed.
Iraqi officials said Tuesday the Americans were first tortured and then killed in a "barbaric" way. According to a web statement that has not been authenticated, the terror group Al Qaeda in Iraq is claiming it killed the U.S. soldiers. The statement also says the soldiers were "slaughtered" by the new head of the group, successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a U.S. air strike on June 7th.
The language in the statement suggests the men were beheaded.
U.S. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell says the cause of death for the bodies found Monday and recovered Tuesday is "undeterminable at this point."
Caldwell declined to comment on the condition of the bodies or specify whether they had been killed in the attack on Friday or were in fact kidnapped and killed later, saying only that they were found together in the vicinity of an electrical plant.
"Based upon how we found them, it did not appear that they had just been mortally wounded and moved to a location on their own and died. Where they arrived at, where we found them is not due to their own movement and they in fact had been left there," he said, adding that no note was found with the bodies.
The bodies of the two soldiers were spotted by coalition forces late Monday, but a military spokesman said their retrieval was delayed by the need to dismantle explosives planted in the area – suggesting the bodies may have been booby-trapped.
"They did not make immediate movement to go into that location because it was dark," said Caldwell, adding that due to the abundance of explosives already encountered "they wanted to proceed with caution... so they waited until daylight when they could bring in the explosive ordnance detachment and some other assets."
In Oregon, Tucker's family grieved in private. They said in a statement they were devastated by the news but heartened by the community support.
"Tom has gained a much larger family through this ordeal than he had when he left home to go help to free the Iraqi people and protect his country from the threat of terrorism," the family said.
"I think that everybody that knew Tom, and knows him, will be pretty devastated about it," Rick Strader, who worked with Tucker when Tucker was in high school, told CBS News correspondent Stephan Kaufman in Tucker's hometown of Madras. "It's horrible. They're over there doing a job and something like this happens and it really hits home. It hits this town really hard."
Menchaca's relatives are outraged at hearing grisly reports of his slaying through the media.
Menchaca's mother, Maria Vasquez, had already heard the reports when a member of the Army's casualty assistance office arrived at her Brownsville home Tuesday morning. She was sobbing when she answered the door of her home, accompanied by her niece, Felipa Gomez.
"She's hanging in there," and still holding on to hope that Menchaca will make it back alive, Gomez said. "She might be frightened, but she won't show it."
Vasquez later issued a statement written in Spanish that said, "I am against the war and I feel very hurt by what has happened to my son."
Ken MacKenzie, an uncle of Manchaca, lashed out at the U.S. government Tuesday morning, saying it did not do enough to find the men and keep them safe.
"I think the U.S. government was too slow to react to this. They should have had a plan in place," said MacKenzie, on NBC's "Today" show. "Because the U.S. government did not have a plan in place, my nephew has paid for it with his life."
The discovery of the remains followed a massive search effort by some 8,000 Iraqi and U.S. troops after the two men went missing Friday near the town of Youssifiyah in the volatile Sunni Triangle south of Baghdad.
Caldwell said one U.S. soldier died and 12 others were wounded during the search effort, while two insurgents had been killed and 78 were detained as coalition forces received 66 tips, 18 that were considered worthy of follow-up.
The director of the Iraqi defense ministry's operation room, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Mohammed, also said the bodies showed signs of having been tortured. "With great regret, they were killed in a barbaric way," he said.
The claim of responsibility was made in the name of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of five insurgent groups led by al Qaeda in Iraq. The group posted an Internet statement Monday claiming it was holding the American soldiers captive.
"We give the good news... to the Islamic nation that we have carried God's verdict by slaughtering the two captured crusaders," said the claim, which appeared on an Islamic militant Web site where insurgent groups regularly post statements and videos.
"With God Almighty's blessing, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer carried out the verdict of the Islamic court" calling for the soldiers' slaying, the statement said.
The statement said the soldiers were "slaughtered," suggesting that al-Muhajer beheaded them. The Arabic word used in the statement, "nahr," is used for the slaughtering of sheep by cutting the throat and has been used in past statements to refer to beheadings.
The U.S. military has identified al-Muhajer as an Egyptian associate of al-Zarqawi also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
The killings would be the first acts of violence attributed to al-Muhajer since he was named al Qaeda in Iraq's new leader in a June 12 Web message by the group. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike on June 7.
Al-Zarqawi made al Qaeda in Iraq notorious for hostage beheadings and was believed to have killed two American captives himself — Nicholas Berg in April 2004 and Eugene Armstrong in September 2004.
Kidnappings of U.S. service members have been rare since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, despite the presence of about 130,000 forces.
The last U.S. soldier to be captured was Sgt. Keith M. Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, who was taken on April 9, 2004 after insurgents ambushed his fuel convoy. Two months later, a tape on Al-Jazeera purported to show a captive U.S. soldier shot, but the Army ruled it was inconclusive and remains listed as missing.
Caldwell said that in addition to the two soldiers, a dozen Americans — including Maupin and 11 private citizens — are missing in Iraq.