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, both countries said Monday, hailing the attack as a significant blow to the insurgency.
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 remarkable ability to change tactics and adapt despite repeated blows to its leadership.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the killings of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri at a news conference in Baghdad and showed reporters photographs of their bloody corpses. The deaths were later confirmed by U.S. military officials.
“The attack was carried out by ground forces which surrounded the house,” Mr. Maliki said. He said the house in Thar-Thar had been destroyed and the two bodies were found inside, in a hole in the ground in which they had been hiding. “During the operation computers were seized with e-mails and messages to the two biggest terrorists, Osama bin Laden and [his deputy] Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Mr. Maliki added. (BBC)
The U.S. military said an American helicopter crashed during the assault, killing one U.S. soldier. It had previously said the crash was an accident and not due to hostile fire.
The arrests of many other senior leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq in the last couple of days led authorities to discover the safe house, Mr. Maliki said. Security forces arrested 16 “additional suspected criminal associates of the warranted individuals,” the military said. (CNN)
There had been previous reports of al-Baghdadi being killed that turned out to be false. While other people have operated under the same name, authorities are confident that the man killed Sunday is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, al-Maliki said Monday.
In Washington, Vice President Joe Biden called the killing of the two a “potentially devastating blow” to al-Qaeda in Iraq. (The Associated Press) He said the operation “demonstrates the improved security, strength and capacity of Iraqi security forces.” (BBC)
“The Iraqis led this operation,” Biden told reporters, adding that the Iraqis also gathered intelligence that led to the targeting. “In short, the Iraqis have taken the lead.” (Washington Post)
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.” (The Associated Press)
Ordierno said al-Masri was the link in Iraq to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda: “That was the foreign element of al-Qaeda that was established here.” (CNN)
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman 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 back down. Under a plan by President Barack Obama, all combat forces will be out of Iraq by the end of August, leaving about 50,000 U.S. forces in the country for such roles as trainers and support personnel.
Al-Maliki described the deaths as “a quality blow breaking the back of al-Qaeda.” (The Associated Press)
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said that high value intelligence was found at the site, in particular on the methods used by al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Iraq to communicate with the group’s command structure outside the country. “Terrorist attacks will not stop because al-Qaeda remains active in Iraq. This will weaken their operation because the cell that was arrested will take us to other leaders,” he said. (Reuters)
The Iraqi government has frequently claimed it has arrested major al-Qaeda leaders only to be proved wrong, and the reaction of Iraqis was mixed. “Abu Ayyub passes away and another Abu Ayyub pops up,” said one Baghdad resident, Hussein Taher. Another, Abu Nabiel al-Humairi, told Reuters Television, “Eliminating terrorism is great. We want to walk freely in our country and live safely.” (Reuters)
Analysts said Masri and Baghdadi were the highest-ranking al-Qaeda figures to be targeted in Iraq since the organization’s former chief, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed by U.S. aircraft in June 2006. But they said the outcome of talks to form the next government was more relevant to Iraq’s future and stability.
“This political situation in Iraq is very volatile at the moment, so while this will be good for Maliki and make headlines for 48 hours it will be forgotten amid the ongoing post-election story,” said Peter Harling, an analyst at the International Criss Group. “From what we’ve seen in the past killing leaders like this has never made much of a difference.” (Reuters)
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.
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 from 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-Maliki, who has staked his reputation on being the man who can restore stability to Iraq after years of bloodshed.
The news came as Iraq’s election commissioned it would recount ballots cast in Baghdad in the March 7 election, after al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition raised accusation of fraud and irregularities in the capital as well as four other provinces.
Al-Maliki’s coalition is currently trailing one led by a secular challenger, Ayad Allawi, and the recount could potentially give the Iraqi prime minister the lead.