BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An al Qaeda-led group in Iraq said on Monday it had killed three U.S. soldiers after capturing them last month but provided no evidence apart from pictures of ID cards of two of the men.
The U.S. military launched a major search operation after the three soldiers went missing on May 12 when a U.S. patrol was attacked in an al Qaeda stronghold south of Baghdad. Four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were killed in the attack.
A video from the Islamic State in Iraq group posted on the Internet carried images of the U.S. army identification cards of Byron Fouty and Alex Jimenez. The video showed credit cards and what the group said were belongings of the two soldiers.
"(U.S. President George W.) Bush is the cause of the loss of your captives," said a caption on the 10-minute video, posted on Web sites used by al Qaeda and other Islamists.
"Fearing the occupying army will continue its searches, harming our Muslim brothers, (the Islamic State in Iraq) decided to settle the matter and announced the news of their killing to cause bitterness to God's enemies," said a speaker on the video.
"The three soldiers were captives, then dead bodies."
The U.S. military said it was studying the video. "We are further analyzing the video ... it doesn't appear to contain any definitive evidence indicating the status of our missing soldiers," Brigadier General Kevin Bergner said in a statement.
The video showed a group of masked insurgents planning an attack and shaky night footage of what it said was the raid on the U.S. patrol that led to the capture of the three.
The group, formed last year by al Qaeda's wing in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents, has claimed responsibility for mass kidnappings and a series of major attacks.
The U.S. military has said a body pulled from the Euphrates River near Baghdad on May 23 was that of one of the three missing soldiers, Private First Class Joseph Anzack. The body had bullet wounds and signs of torture.
The attack on the U.S. patrol occurred near the town of Mahmudiya, in the same area where two U.S. soldiers were kidnapped by al Qaeda militants last year. Their mutilated bodies were found later.
U.S. troops are dying at rates not seen for more than two years, almost four months after Washington began to send thousands more troops to Iraq in a last-ditch attempt to drag the country back from the brink of all-out sectarian civil war.
The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, said on Monday it was too early to judge whether a Baghdad security crackdown was successful because the last of five extra brigades had yet to be deployed.
Earlier, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver said U.S. and Iraqi troops controlled only about a third of the Iraqi capital.
"You have not even seen the start of real operations," Petraeus told reporters on the sidelines of a medal ceremony at a U.S. air base near Balad, 80 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad.
The U.S. military said an extra 18,000 U.S. troops, and many more Iraqi soldiers and police, had already been deployed since the start of the crackdown in the Iraqi capital in mid-February.
"The surge has not truly reached the full number on the ground. We still have an additional brigade just coming into Iraq," said Petraeus.
He and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, are due to give a progress report to President George W. Bush in September that Petraeus promised would be a "forthright snapshot" that would include their thoughts on various options.
"We would not be doing this if we did not think this was doable. This is a doable mission," said Petraeus.
Bush won a bruising battle with a Democrat-controlled Congress for war funding but is under growing pressure, including from within his own Republican Party, to show progress in the unpopular war or start bringing troops home.
The crackdown in Baghdad and other areas is designed to buy time for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government to meet a set of political targets set by Washington aimed at promoting national reconciliation.
The benchmarks, including a revenue-sharing oil law and constitutional reform, are meant to draw minority Sunni Arabs, dominant under Saddam Hussein, away from the insurgency and back into the political process alongside the majority Shi'ites.