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Iraq claims key gains in dismantling Al Qaeda in Iraq

After the killing this week of the two top leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq, officials in Baghdad said more important gains have recently been made in dismantling the group's networks.

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“Al-Masri was physically developing the campaign plans for the timing, the type of targets that they were going to hit. Baghdadi was more the Iraqi face – the political party head of the Islamic State of Iraq/Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” said US Army Brig. Gen. Rob Baker said in an interview. “From what we could tell, they very often collaborated on the strategies they were going to follow."

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Good publicity

The announcement was also a publicity coup for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting to retain leadership of the country after preliminary results in national elections gave his party two fewer seats than his main challenger.

Aksari said Mr. Maliki himself had overseen the intelligence cell which led in the operation. The cell – attached to the prime minister’s office – was one of the units set up by Maliki after he took power in what was viewed by some as a worrying effort to place more security operations under his direct control.

Maliki’s announcement of the killings on state television Monday appeared to take the US military by surprise.

More than 24 hours after the prime minister displayed a photograph of the man thought to be Baghdadi in US detention, the chief US military spokesman said he could not confirm that Baghdadi had at some point been in American custody.

Until last year, US military officials had widely believed that "Baghdadi" was either fictitious or a name shared by a variety of AQI figures for propaganda purposes. They have since linked him to a former Iraqi Army officer named Hamid Dawoud Mohammad Khalil al-Zawi. One Iraqi security official said Mr. Zawi trained in Afghanistan and had been tracked during the battle for Fallujah in 2004.

Iraqi officials have previously announced the killing of Baghdadi. The US said DNA testing proved Baghdadi and Zawi are the same man. It wasn't clear how DNA testing could link an alias to an actual person

Network coming apart?

While the deaths have significant symbolic and operational significance for Al Qaeda in Iraq, officials said a series of raids over the past three months could prove more important in dismantling the network.

Fifty-seven suspected Al Qaeda figures have been arrested over the past two weeks in Baghdad and adjoining Anbar Province, said Baker, with the Army’s 1st Armored Division. From January to March of this year, 280 suspected AQI members were captured and eight killed, many of them in the Mosul area, he said.

Interrogations and data seized during the arrests, along with increased intelligence from Iraqi sources and US intelligence and surveillance technology, have helped build leads that have led to the series of raids.

US forces attribute a sharp drop in attacks claimed by Al Qaeda in Iraq partly to the removal of so many members from the organization.

"I think immediately there will be a lull in operations just like it was when Zarqawi was taken out,” said Baker. “The question is how many more strings can they keep pulling out of the network. You’ll see a concentrated effort by security forces to not rest on their laurels and to go after the targets while they're out there."

“We have to invest in our gains,” said Atta. “That is more valuable than the victory itself.”

(this article was corrected after posting to clarify that DNA tests confirmed the death of Zawi.)