BAGHDAD — The U.S. and Iraq claimed a major victory against al-Qaida on Monday, saying their forces killed the terror group's two top figures in this country in an air and ground assault on their safehouse near Saddam Hussein's hometown.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the killings of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri at a news conference and showed photographs of their bloody corpses. U.S. military officials later confirmed the deaths, which Vice President Joe Biden called a "potentially devastating blow" to al-Qaida in Iraq.
The organization has proven resilient in the past, showing a remarkable ability to change tactics and adapt – most notably after its brutal founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed nearly four years ago in a U.S. airstrike. Still, some analysts contend, the group was far stronger then and would likely have a harder time now replenishing its leadership and sticking to a timetable of attacks.
"The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency," Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in a statement.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has remained a dangerous force as the U.S. prepares to withdraw most of its troops. The terror group has launched repeated attacks on civilian targets in Baghdad in an attempt to sow chaos and exploit political deadlock in the wake of the inconclusive March 7 parliamentary elections.
Monday's announcement comes at a critical time for al-Maliki, who has staked his reputation on being the man who can restore stability to Iraq after years of bloodshed. The prime minister is locked in a tight contest with secular challenger Ayad Allawi to see who will form the next government. Al-Maliki's coalition trails Allawi's bloc by two seats in the 325-seat parliament, and neither has yet been able to secure enough support from other parties to muster a majority.
Al-Maliki's bid to keep the prime minister's office received a second boost Monday when Iraq's election commission announced it would recount ballots cast in Baghdad, after complaints of fraud lodged by al-Maliki's coalition. The recount could potentially give the Iraqi prime minister's bloc more seats than Allawi's.
Allawi has charged that Iraqi security forces have been unfocused since the election.
But Biden, President Barack Obama's point person on Iraq, said the deaths of the al-Qaida leaders underscored their overall improvement.
"The Iraqis led this operation, and it was based on intelligence the Iraqi security forces themselves developed," said Biden, who came before reporters in the White House briefing room to draw added attention to the results.
U.S. military officials have been highlighting the role of Iraqi security forces as American forces draw down. Under a plan outlined by 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. Those forces will leave the country entirely by the end of 2011.
The U.S. military said the early Sunday raid that killed the two al-Qaida leaders was launched after intelligence gathered during joint operations over the last week led security forces to the elusive leaders' safehouse about six miles (10 kilometers) southwest of Tikrit.
Al-Maliki said ground forces surrounded the house and that rockets were fired from the air. The U.S. military said an American UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed during the assault, killing one U.S. soldier and wounding three others; the crash was not believed to have been caused by enemy fire.
The two al-Qaida leaders were inside the house. Al-Masri's assistant and al-Baghdadi's son, both suspected of being involved in terrorist attacks, also died in the raid and 16 other suspects were arrested, the military said.
Al-Masri, the shadowy national leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, joined al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and trained as a car bombing expert before traveling to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, U.S. officials said.
Al-Masri was able to step in quickly to take after al-Zarqawi, the flamboyant Jordanian-born founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, was killed in June 2006. The group launched a bombing campaign shortly afterward to show that al-Qaida was far from eliminated.
An Egyptian, al-Masri kept a lower public profile than al-Zarqawi, who appeared in militant videos including one in which he personally beheaded American Nicholas Berg.
Al-Masri's real name was Abdul-Monim al-Badawi, according to an al-Qaida statement last year describing the makeup of a new "War Cabinet."
Al-Baghdadi was the self-described leader of the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq. U.S. military officials on Monday said his real name was Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi.
Past Iraqi claims to have captured or killed al-Baghdadi turned out to be wrong, and the Islamic State of Iraq has issued at least two denials of his capture.
Al-Baghdadi was so elusive that at times U.S. officials also have questioned whether he was a real person or merely a composite of a terrorist to give an Iraqi face to an organization led primarily by foreigners. The U.S. military once even asserted that audio recordings in the name of a fictitious al-Baghdadi were in fact read by someone else.
In the most recent message attributed to him, released near the end of March, al-Baghdadi called for continued jihad, or holy war, against Iraq's American "occupiers" in the wake of the election.
Al-Qaida in Iraq emerged after al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, leader of the global al-Qaida network, in October 2004.
A revolt against al-Qaida 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 buildup.
Although al-Qaida has shown it is still capable of carrying out its hallmark coordinated suicide attacks against high-profile targets in the heart of the capital, all indications are the organization has been significantly degraded since the height of the insurgency, said Brett McGurk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. National Security Council and State Department official. Estimates put its highest strength at one point at close to 10,000 fighters, mostly Iraqis, but the number is thought to be much smaller now.
The spate of violence after al-Zarqawi was killed "was basically al-Qaida saying 'you can kill our top guy but we're still around and we're still in control of events,' " McGurk said.
He said the current situation is much different because al-Qaida is weaker and Iraqi security forces are stronger, but that the true test will be in the coming months: "Can al-Qaida pull off spectacular bombings and if they can, how do Iraqis respond?"
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sinan Salaheddin, Rebecca Santana and Bushra Juhi in Baghdad, and Charles Babington in Washington, contributed to this report.