- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 20, 2010

U.S. and Iraqi forces killed two al Qaeda leaders this week in what U.S. officials described as a significant blow to the terrorist organization and promptly hailed as an Iraqi success story.

Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the military leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State of Iraq, were killed early Sunday in operations west of Tikrit, the hometown of the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.

Al-Masri, an Egyptian also known as Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir, replaced the group’s Jordanian-born founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, after al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006. Al-Baghdadi, also known as Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi, served al Qaeda in Iraq as the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and held the title “Leader of the Faithful.”

Al-Masri’s assistant and al-Baghdadi’s son, both of whom were involved in terrorist activities, also were killed in the operation.

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Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said the deaths were “potentially the most significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.”

“The government of Iraq, intelligence services and security forces supported by U.S. intelligence and special operations forces have over the last several months continued to degrade [al Qaeda in Iraq]. There is still work to do, but this is a significant step forward in ridding Iraq of terrorists,” he said.

A U.S. helicopter crashed during the operation, killing one U.S. soldier.

A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, said, “Getting these two guys off the street is significant for several reasons. They’re key figures in al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate. Al-Masri, an Egyptian, ran the show, with al-Baghdadi being its top local voice. Most of its people are Iraqi.”

The official said al Qaeda in Iraq has been taking “a pounding for years, and they’re more isolated than ever, in part because of their own brutality, but they can still launch deadly attacks.”

“Nobody thinks this is the end of their brand of extremism, but it’s a setback for them. And it was the Iraqis who led the way on this operation, an example of their skill in the face of a deadly, resourceful foe,” the official added. U.S. officials were quick to publicly credit Iraqi security forces with the mission’s success.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., describing the deaths of the terrorist leaders as “potentially devastating blows” to al Qaeda, said: “This action demonstrates the improved security, strength and capacity of Iraqi security forces. The Iraqis led this operation, and it was based on intelligence the Iraqi security forces themselves developed following their capture of a senior [al Qaeda] leader last month.

“In short, the Iraqis have taken the lead in securing Iraq and its citizens by taking out both of these individuals,” Mr. Biden said. “This counterterrorism operation is the culmination of a lot of cooperation and very hard work by Iraqi and U.S. forces to degrade [al Qaeda] over the past several months and years.”

Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, said the operation indicated the development of Iraqi capabilities.

Two terrorist leaders were “responsible for barbaric attacks that killed thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens and Iraqi and Coalition Security Force members,” Gen. Petraeus said. Congratulating U.S. and Iraqi troops, he said the terrorists’ deaths were “another major milestone in the effort to defeat extremism in Iraq” and “significant blows against extremism in Iraq.”

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