BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The U.S. military recovered the bodies Tuesday 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 the new leader of al-Qaida in Iraq executed the men personally, but it offered no evidence. The U.S. military did not confirm whether the soldiers died from wounds suffered in an attack Friday or were kidnapped and later killed.

The discovery of the bodies dealt a new setback to U.S. efforts to seize the momentum against al-Qaida in Iraq after killing its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in a June 7 airstrike. Violence was unabated Tuesday, with at least 18 people killed in attacks nationwide, including a suicide bombing of a home for the elderly in the southern city of Basra.

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

“Coalition forces had to carefully maneuver their way through numerous improvised explosive devices leading up to and around the site,” the military said in a statement. “Insurgents attempting to inflict additional casualties had placed IEDs around the bodies.”

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said the bodies were found together in the vicinity of an electrical plant, which would be just a few miles from where the initial attack took place near the town of Youssifiyah in the volatile Sunni Triangle south of Baghdad.

Caldwell said the remains were believed to be those of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore. The bodies will be flown from Kuwait to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for positive identification through autopsies and DNA testing.

Menchaca’s cousin Sylvia Grice said the soldier visited relatives in Texas last month but didn’t talk much about the war.

“He wanted to go out and visit his friends,” she said. “He wanted to eat a hamburger. He didn’t want to sit down and talk about what was going on. But he was very proud of serving his country and he believed in what he was doing.”

The director of the Iraqi Defense Ministry’s operation room, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Mohammed, said the bodies showed signs of having been tortured. “With great regret, they were killed in a barbaric way,” he said.

The two soldiers disappeared after an insurgent attack at a checkpoint by a Euphrates River canal, 12 miles south of Baghdad. Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was killed in the attack. The three men were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky.

Caldwell said only a single vehicle carrying the three U.S. soldiers was attacked. A witness has said two other Humvees were in the area and went after the assailants, while seven masked gunmen ambushed the third Humvee.

Some 8,000 Iraqi and U.S. troops searched for the missing soldiers. One U.S. soldier died and 12 were wounded during the search, Caldwell said, adding that coalition troops killed two insurgents and detained 78. The troops received 66 tips, 18 of which were considered worthy of follow up.

The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of five insurgent groups led by al-Qaida in Iraq, posted an Internet statement Monday claiming it was holding the American soldiers captive and that “we shall give you more details about the incident in the next few days, God willing.”

On Tuesday, after Iraqi officials disclosed that the bodies were found, the Shura Council posted another Web statement, saying al-Zarqawi’s successor had “slaughtered” the soldiers. The language in the statement, which could not be authenticated, suggested the group was saying the men were beheaded.

“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 U.S. military has identified al-Muhajer as an Egyptian associate of al-Zarqawi also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri. If confirmed, the killings would be the first acts of violence attributed to al-Muhajer since he was named the new leader of al-Qaida in Iraq in a June 12 Web message by the group.

Al-Zarqawi made al-Qaida in Iraq notorious for beheadings and was believed to have killed two American captives himself – Nicholas Berg in April 2004 and Eugene Armstrong in September 2004. A dozen Americans are still missing in Iraq, Caldwell said.

Just hours before Tucker and Menchaca disappeared Friday, a U.S. airstrike killed a key al-Qaida in Iraq leader described as the group’s “religious emir,” Caldwell said.

Mansour Suleiman Mansour Khalifi al-Mashhadani, or Sheik Mansour, died along with two foreign fighters in the same area where the soldiers’ bodies were found. The three were trying to flee in a vehicle.

Al-Mashhadani, identified as an Iraqi in his late 30s, was “a key leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, with excellent religious, military and leadership credentials” and tied to the senior leadership, including al-Zarqawi and his alleged replacement, Caldwell said.

U.S. forces captured Mansour in July 2004 because of his ties to the militant groups Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Sunna, but the military let him go because he was not deemed an important terror figure at the time.

Tuesday’s violence across Iraq included at least three bombs striking Baghdad despite a security crackdown launched nearly a week ago.

In the bombing of the home for the elderly, an 18-year-old Sunni wearing an explosives belt blew himself up as senior citizens were lined up to collect monthly pensions. Two elderly women were killed and three people were wounded.

Police said the motive was unclear, but sectarian tensions have been worsening in the predominantly Shiite city of Basra.

Associated Press writers Patrick Quinn in Baghdad, Ryan Lenz in Balad, and Nadia Abou el-Magd in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report.

AP-ES-06-20-06 1832EDT

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