Al Qaeda killings show growing competence of Iraqi Army

Iraqi Army is being credited for finding and killing two top figures with Al Qaeda in Iraq, including leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

By , Staff writer

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    In this June 15, 2006, file photo, a US soldier at a press conference in Baghdad stands by a photograph that purports to show Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who was the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. He was killed by the Iraqi Army Sunday, according to US and Iraqi officials.
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The US is heralding the killing of two top al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq as a reflection of just how mature Iraqi security forces - including the Iraqi Army - are becoming, suggesting the incident could be hugely significant to the future security of Iraq. But some experts are still taking a wait-and-see approach.

US officials confirmed Monday that Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the head of Al Qaeda Iraq, and a mysterious colleague, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, were killed in a joint US-Iraqi operation west of Tikrit on Sunday.

News reports of the deaths of senior militant leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere rarely draw immediate confirmation and then praise from the US military and other government leaders. But it appeared that, as the US confronts drawing down its forces during the next four months, it was ready to trumpet the news.

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“Their deaths are potentially devastating blows to Al Qaeda Iraq,” said Vice President Joe Biden in a statement to the media in the briefing room of the White House Monday.

'Iraqis have taken the lead'

Mr. Biden said the capture represents the changing character of the Iraqi security forces, based on their own intelligence gleaned from a capture of another Al Qaeda leader recently.

“In short, the Iraqis have taken the lead in securing Iraq and its citizens by taking out both of these individuals,” Biden said.

In another rare public statement, Gen. David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, echoed Biden's conclusions: “Their deaths constitute another major milestone in the effort to defeat extremism in Iraq.”

Mr. Masri replaced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006, as leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Mr. Baghdadi, whom the Iraqi government has twice pronounced killed, was the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, a group of several insurgent organizations.

The earlier, unsubstantiated announcements of Baghdadi’s death led some to wonder if the individual was even real. Today, US and Iraqi officials said that DNA evidence confirmed it was Baghdadi.

Will it blunt violence?

While the killing of these leaders will no doubt create a “leadership crisis,” resulting in a “lack of focus and discipline,” the impact on violence in Iraq will only become clear in the longer term, says Stephanie Sanok, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

Signs that Al Qaeda in Iraq has weakened might include: a decrease of high-profile attacks and also fewer attacks of “softer targets,” such as video stores and apartment complexes, says Ms. Sanok, who worked as a strategic planner at the US embassy in Baghdad during 2009.

“I’m really going to hold my breath until I see those kinds of attacks go down,” she says.

In the past, the US military has been quick to credit indigenous forces – whether they be Iraqi or Afghan – when those forces score a success. But in this case, it's probably deserved, says Sanok.

With the bulk of American forces operating out of large bases – and not on the Iraqi street – the intelligence required to kill or capture senior militants must come from the Iraqis. This operation appears to have been the result of that, she says.

“I do think this really was an Iraqi-led operation, and that bodes well,” she said.

Impact on the US drawdown

While the killings of the top Al Qaeda leaders reflect the increasing capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, they also helps to bolster the chances that the US gets out of Iraq on time.

By bilateral agreement, all combat forces are to be out of Iraq by the end of August, leaving some 50,000 American service members on the ground. By the end of 2011, all forces are scheduled be gone from Iraq.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, has a contingency plan in which an additional combat brigade is left behind in Iraq pending an assessment of
the levels of violence by summer. But it remains unclear if he will have to ask them to stay.

In Sunday’s operation, one American soldier was killed. His name has not yet been released, pending notification of kin.

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