Iraqi and U.S. officials say a joint military operation has killed the two top leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the deaths and showed reporters in Baghdad pictures of two bloody bodies. The top U.S. general in Iraq also confirmed the deaths.
The U.S. military says the two men were killed Sunday in an Iraqi-led operation with U.S. support against an al-Qaida safe house north of Baghdad, in an area with significant insurgent activity.
The Iraqi government and the U.S. military say one of the men was the al-Qaida military leader, Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir, known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri. He replaced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when he was killed in a U.S. airstrike four years ago. The officials say other dead insurgent leader was Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al Zawi, known as Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. He was the leader of the proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and held the title "Prince of the Faithful."
Prime Minister Maliki said in Baghdad the two men were found dead in a small shelter under the safe house after Iraqi forces assaulted the building with missiles and ground forces. These men have been reported killed or captured before, but this time Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman says he is confident the information is accurate.
"I'm confident that they wouldn't put out a news release on this if they didn't have a degree of certainty about it," said Bryan Whitman. "Not that we haven't made errors in the past on any number of things. When we have, we correct the record. But I believe that they've been very careful in crafting this release and getting it out."
Officials say at least two other insurgents were killed in the operation, including a son of al-Baghdadi, and 16 suspects have been arrested based on information found in the house. The U.S. military says the attack was the culmination of a series of joint operations last week, and reports one American soldier was killed in a helicopter crash during the final assault.
The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, is quoted in an official release as calling the deaths of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi "potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency." Odierno credited Iraqi and U.S. intelligence services and operational troops with degrading al-Qaida's capabilities in Iraq over the last several months.
At the Pentagon, Bryan Whitman echoed that sentiment.
"These are two significant individuals," he said. "And it demonstrates a capability, a growing capability of the Iraqi security forces to go after these threats in their country. And it's very positive that neither of those individuals will be operating in Iraq any more."
Whitman said the deaths of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi will have an impact on al-Qaida's ability to operate, but he said the extent of the impact will have to be evaluated over time.
The operation comes as Prime Minister Maliki is negotiating with various political parties to try to form a coalition for another term in office, even though his party won two fewer parliament seats than its main rival in the recent election.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Monday linked advances by Iraqi security forces to the current political negotiations.
"To consolidate these security gains and honor the sacrifice that so many have made, it's now incumbent on Iraq's political leaders to take the next and important necessary step to form an inclusive and representative government that meets the needs and aspirations of the Iraqi people," said Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden, who heads Iraq policy for President Barack Obama, called the elimination of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi a "significant milestone" and "potentially devastating blows" against al-Qaida in Iraq. He reaffirmed America's commitment to end its combat operations in Iraq by August and to remove all its troops by the end of next year. But the vice president warned that difficult days lie ahead as al-Qaida maintains the ability to carry out attacks.
In the past, when al-Qaida in Iraq leaders have been killed, they have been quickly replaced. But U.S. officials say as the insurgency's numbers and capabilities have been reduced it has become harder for the organization to find high quality leadership. Still, officials warn the group remains capable of launching occasional high-profile attacks, as it has done steadily in recent months.