The bodies of two U.S. soldiers have been found, and a senior Iraqi military official said Tuesday they belong to men who went missing last week after a deadly insurgent attack on a traffic checkpoint.
The U.S. military confirmed it had recovered two bodies and was conducting DNA tests to confirm their identities. A U.S. military official said it was believed the two bodies were those of the soldiers, but there was no confirmation.
U.S. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said the cause of death was "undeterminable at this point."
A senior Iraqi military official said the bodies found showed signs of torture and of being killed in "a barbaric way." Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Mohammed said the bodies were found on a street near a power plant in the town of Youssifiyah, just south of Baghdad.
Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for killing the soldiers, and said the successor to slain terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had "slaughtered" them, according to a Web statement that could not be authenticated. The language in the statement suggested the men had been beheaded.
The authenticity of the Web site claim of responsibility could not be confirmed. It was posted on an Islamic militant Web forum where insurgent groups regularly post statements.
The Defense Department has identified the missing men as Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Oregon.
The White House was awaiting confirmation from the Pentagon, reports CBS News White House correspondent Peter Maer.
In other developments:
If true, it would be the first act of violence by al-Muhajer since he was named al Qaeda in Iraq's new leader in a June 12 Web message by the group. He succeeded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. air strike on June 7.
Attributing the slayings to al-Muhajer could be an attempt to build up the image of the new leader.
Al-Zarqawi became notorious for his group's hostage beheadings, often shown in grisly videos posted on the Web. He earned the nickname "the slaughtering sheik" among his followers and is believed to have killed two Americans himself — Nicholas Berg in April 2004 and Eugene Armstrong in September 2004.
"We give the good news ... to the Islamic nation that we have carried God's verdict by slaughtering the two captured crusaders," said a statement in the name of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, which groups seven insurgent organizations including al Qaeda in Iraq.
"With God Almighty's blessing, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer carried out the verdict of the Islamic court" for the soldier's slaying, the statement said.
The soldiers came under attack Friday at a traffic checkpoint near Youssifiyah. A third soldier, Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was killed in the attack.
"The news is going to be heartbreaking for my family," Ken MacKenzie, Menchaca's uncle, told an American news show.
He said the United States should have paid a ransom from money seized from Saddam Hussein.
"I think the U.S. was too slow to react to this. Because the U.S. did not have a plan in place, my nephew has paid with his life."
Yusifiyah, long a Sunni insurgent stronghold, sits about 12 miles South of Baghdad, reports CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan, amid apple orchards and farm fields, crisscrossed by a series of irrigation canals.
The soldiers were alone, near one of those canals, when local witnesses say their Humvee was surrounded by masked gunman. The rest of their unit heard the attack, but it was too late for the three soldiers.
In Monday's statement, the council taunted U.S. forces for failing to find the two American soldiers, who went missing Friday during an attack on their checkpoint in a Sunni district south of Baghdad.
"The events reconfirm the weakness of the alleged American intelligence and it's going astray in Iraq," the statement said.
"The American military has launched a campaign of raids using armor and equipment, in the region around the incident, but the army of 'the strongest nation in the world' retreated in defeat and disgrace," the statement said.
As the White House awaits Pentagon confirmation of the Iraqi report, says Maer, the case of the two soldiers is grim evidence of the president's warning of more challenges ahead in Iraq. It's also a blow to administration hopes for progress following the death of al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi earlier this month.