BAGHDAD - Two US soldiers missing in Iraq for three days have been found dead, their bodies showing signs of "barbaric" torture, after an intensive hunt involving thousands of troops.
"Coalition forces have recovered what we believe are the remains of the soldiers," US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said, declining to comment on how they died.
An internet statement said the new leader of al Qaeda in Iraq "slit the throats" of the two men but its authenticity seemed questionable. The same group had said in a statement on Monday to be holding the men, but Caldwell dismissed that.
"God Almighty has graced the leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir ... with the implementation of the sentence," said a statement from the Mujahideen Shura Council. Al Qaeda's former leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, died in a US air strike two weeks ago.
Caldwell said a joint US-Iraqi force found the bodies of Privates Thomas Lowell Tucker, 25, and Kristian Menchaca, 23, on Monday night dumped at an electrical plant. The recovery of the bodies was delayed by having to defuse bombs planted nearby.
He did not make clear whether the bodies themselves or the site were booby-trapped: "There were some IEDs in that location and they did have to dismantle some stuff to get to them."
White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters on Air Force One travelling with President George W. Bush to Vienna for meeting with European Union leaders that the bodies were being shipped home for positive identification.
"I think it's a reminder that this is a brutal enemy that does not follow any of the rules. It attacks civilians for political gain. It provokes sectarian violence and it really follows no rules of warfare," Hadley said.
Iraqi Defence Ministry official Major General Abdul Aziz Mohammed told Reuters earlier that the bodies showed signs of "barbaric torture". He did not elaborate.
The US military launched a massive search for the soldiers involving aircraft and 8,000 US troops and Iraqi security forces after vowing not to leave them "out there".
The discovery came as more bomb blasts shook Baghdad, killing nine people despite a security clampdown. The US military also said troops hunting insurgents linked to al Qaeda had killed 15 gunmen in raids north of the capital.
Caldwell said a US air strike on a fleeing vehicle killed a senior al Qaeda in Iraq leader on Friday in the same area where the two American soldiers went missing a few hours later.
US forces had been on the trail of Mansur al-Mashhadani, identified as the top al Qaeda religious leader in the country, before he was killed in the Yusufiya area just south of Baghdad.
Tucker and Menchaca went missing at dusk on Friday after an ambush at a checkpoint in Yusufiya, a town in an area south of Baghdad some Iraqis call the "Triangle of Death", which is an al Qaeda stronghold. Another soldier was killed in the attack.
Their deaths dealt a blow to the US military after it killed Zarqawi on June 7 near Baquba, northeast of Baghdad.
US forces hunting insurgents linked to a suspected senior al Qaeda member launched simultaneous pre-dawn raids near Baquba on Tuesday, the US military said.
US soldiers were fired on from the roof of a house in the village of Qaduri Ali al Shahin, 13km north of Baquba as the operation got under way. Troops and supporting aircraft returned fire, killing 11 gunmen.
US troops said they found 10 AK-47 assault rifles and explosives in the raids, but residents said the victims were innocent employees of a nearby poultry farm.
Caldwell said no civilians had been killed in what he described as an "extremely long firefight".
US forces have stepped up their hunt for al Qaeda insurgents following Zarqawi's death and the government announced a security clampdown in the capital to try to thwart the car bombings that exact a deadly daily toll on civilians.
Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said on Tuesday Japan would withdraw its 550 soldiers, engaged in reconstruction and humanitarian work in Iraq.
Iraqi and British officials said Iraqi forces could take responsibility for a second southern province soon after announcing on Monday that the British-led force in the south would hand over Muthanna province next month.