BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi authorities have gathered physical evidence and eyewitness statements linking three alleged al Qaida in Iraq members to the 2006 kidnapping, torture and execution of two American soldiers, American officials close to the case said Wednesday.
Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston and Pfc. Thomas Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore., were captured after a firefight near Baghdad on June 16, 2006. Searchers found their badly mutilated bodies three days later. A third soldier, Spc. David Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., died during the gun battle.
In the months after the killings, U.S. forces arrested three alleged al Qaida in Iraq members, who later were charged with murdering the soldiers under Iraq's civilian anti-terrorism law. The three are set to stand trial in two weeks.
On Wednesday, an American military official close to the joint Iraqi-American investigation, Navy Lt. David Christenson, said fingerprints found on a truck that had been used to drag Menchaca and Tucker through the streets tied one of the alleged terrorists to the soldiers' deaths.
Iraqi villagers who witnessed the dragging gave statements connecting the other suspects to the killings, Christenson said.
"I never like to assume what an outcome will be, but I think we have a very strong case against these guys," he said. "A lot of effort went into this, both by Iraqi investigators and our people supporting them."
The three suspects appeared in Iraqi Central Criminal Court in Rusafa on Wednesday for the first time, where their lawyers asked for more time to review evidence. The three-judge panel presiding over the case granted the request and set a trial date of Oct. 28.
The accused could be sentenced to death if they're convicted. Each has denied involvement in the killings.
The suspects are Ibrahim Karim al Qaraghuli, Whalid Khalid al Kartani and Kazim Fadhil al Zowbai. It wasn't clear whether they were Iraqis. They were taken to court unshackled and wearing teal, brown and bright yellow jumpsuits, respectively. They said nothing during the 10-minute hearing.
American forces arrested the three between July 2006 and July 2007, said Hugh Geoghegan, a spokesman for the U.S. Law and Order Task Force in Iraq. Two of the suspects are in Iraqi custody in Rusafa. The other is at Camp Cropper, an American-run prison in Baghdad.
U.S. officials said they thought that several other suspected al Qaida in Iraq members had participated in the soldiers' killings but that investigators hadn't been able to gather enough evidence to bring additional charges, and at this point it's doubtful they ever will. One suspect was killed in a firefight about a month after the soldiers' deaths.
The soldiers were members of the 1st Platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Three days after the soldiers went missing, searchers found their bodies in Yusifiya, about 12 miles south of Baghdad, near where they'd been captured. They were burnt, tied together and booby-trapped with explosives. Menchaca's throat had been split. Tucker had been decapitated.
The two, along with Babineau, had driven away from their platoon in a Humvee to stand guard at a movable bridge in what was then one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq.
Other soldiers in their unit were guarding a nearby checkpoint when they heard an explosion followed by gunfire at about 8 p.m. By the time they reached the bridge, Babineau was dead and Menchaca and Tucker were gone.
Military investigators later concluded that the inexperienced young soldiers never should have been left alone and that numerous mistakes by their superiors left them vulnerable to attack. A platoon leader and a company commander were relieved of their duties as a result.
U.S. officials have rejected speculation that insurgents targeted Babineau, Tucker and Menchaca out of revenge, but soon after the soldiers' deaths, five members of their unit were charged with the March 2006 rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl in a village near Yusifiya. The girl's parents and sister also were murdered.
Four of the soldiers were convicted. One is still awaiting trial.
(Reilly reports for the Merced, Calif., Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondent Jenan Hussein contributed to this story.)
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