- The Washington Times - Monday, April 19, 2010

UPDATED:

BAGHDAD (AP) — U.S. and Iraqi forces killed the two top al Qaeda figures in the country in a nighttime rocket attack on a safe house near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, a joint operation the U.S. called a significant blow to the insurgency and a sign Iraqi security forces are strengthening.

Al Qaeda in Iraq has remained a potent force, seeking recently to sow chaos after the March 7 elections and ahead of a planned U.S. troop withdrawal. The terror group has shown a remarkable ability to change tactics and adapt despite repeated blows to its leadership.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., making a statement to reporters in the White House briefing room in Washington on Monday, said the killings are a “potentially devastating” blow to the terrorist network. He said Iraqis led the operation based on intelligence that Iraqi security forces had gathered themselves.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki first announced the killings of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri at a press conference in Baghdad and showed reporters photographs of their bloody corpses. The deaths were later confirmed by U.S. military officials.

The Iraqi leader said ground forces surrounded a house and used rockets to kill the two, who were hiding inside. The U.S. military said an American helicopter crashed during the assault, killing one U.S. soldier.

U.S. forces commander Gen. Raymond Odierno praised the operation.

“The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency,” he said. “There is still work to do but this is a significant step forward in ridding Iraq of terrorists.”

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman in Washington said the operation targeting the two leaders showed the growing capability of Iraqi security forces.

U.S. military officials have been highlighting the role of Iraqi security forces in the country as a way to demonstrate their ability to take over security as American forces draw down. Under a plan by President Obama, all combat forces will be out of Iraqi by the end of August, leaving about 50,000 U.S. forces in the country for such roles as trainers and support personnel.

Mr. al-Maliki described the deaths as “a quality blow breaking the back of al Qaeda.”

Al-Masri was the shadowy national leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, which he took over after its Jordanian-born founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a June 2006 U.S. air strike. Al-Masri’s real name was Abdul-Monim al-Badawi, according to a 2009 al Qaeda statement describing the makeup of a new “War Cabinet.”

Al Qaeda in Iraq emerged after al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, leader of the global al Qaeda network, in October 2004. It has survived a series of setbacks in recent years.

At its height, the group was able to inflame sectarian violence so intense that some described it as a civil war.

Though al Qaeda has shown it is still capable of staging its hallmark coordinated suicide attacks against high-profile targets in the heart of the capital, U.S. and Iraqi military operations have diminished its power since the height of the violence several years ago.

A revolt against al Qaeda by Sunni Arab tribes in Western Iraq in late 2006 and 2007 deprived the group of its main bases of support. Taking advantage of the vulnerability, the U.S. pummeled the group during the 2007 troop surge.

Al Qaeda in Iraq has been led primarily by foreigners, but Iraqis form its backbone. At its height, it was estimated at close to 10,000 fighters but it is believed to have dropped off in recent years.

Al-Masri, an Egyptian, kept a lower public profile than al-Zarqawi, who appeared in militant videos on the Web including one in which he personally beheaded American Nicholas Berg.

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin, Rebecca Santana, David Rising, and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.