BAGHDAD — The United States 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.
Maliki said computers and letters were found that included communication between the men and Osama bin Laden. 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.
"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.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has remained a dangerous force as the United States 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 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. Maliki's coalition trails Allawi's bloc by two seats in the 325-seat parliament, and neither has been able to secure enough support from other parties to muster a majority.
Maliki's bid to keep the prime minister's office received a second boost Monday when Iraq's election commission announced it would recount more than 2.5 million ballots cast in Baghdad, after complaints of fraud lodged by Maliki's coalition. The recount could give the 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 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 6 miles southwest of Tikrit.
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 thought to have been caused by enemy fire.
The two al-Qaida leaders were inside the house. Masri's assistant and 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.
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.
Masri was able to step in quickly to take after 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, Masri kept a lower public profile than Zarqawi, who appeared in militant videos including one in which he personally beheaded American Nicholas Berg.
His real name was Abdul-Monim al-Badawi, according to an al-Qaida statement last year. Baghdadi was the self-described leader of the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq. U.S. military officials said his real name was Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi. Baghdadi has been reported dead or detained several times previously, and his very existence was called into question a few years ago by the American military.