In a succession of intelligence breaks, the US says it has killed two key members of Al Qaeda in Iraq in recent days, including the organization's No. 2 man who is suspected of orchestrating a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad since April.
According to American military officials, the US has either made key arrests or developed informants who have led to a cascade of actionable intelligence over the past month. Since the middle of August, the US has reported killing or capturing at least 16 members of Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
How big a blow this is to the insurgency in Iraq remains unclear. While US human intelligence has clearly improved, no one has a clear understanding of the internal workings of Mr. Zarqawi's network, which is thought to be only a small portion of Iraq's decentralized and highly complex insurgency.
"By itself these events don't do much to destroy Al Qaeda as much as undermine and undercut it. But this comes after some very successful operations in Tal Afar that wrapped up the Al Qaeda network there,'' says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior intelligence analyst for the US and now an expert on the Iraq insurgency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The US says it killed the insurgent leader of the town of Karabilah at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, and Abdullah Abu Azzam, said to be the Al Qaeda leader (or emir) of Anbar Province, in a raid in Baghdad on Sunday. Meanwhile Gen. Kevin Bergner told reporters that in northern Iraq, where the US recently fought a major engagement in Tal Afar and where major operations have also been carried out in Mosul, the US has made inroads against the organization.
"We are probably at the point of impacting about 80 percent of that network in terms of detaining, capturing, killing the leadership, and disrupting their resources, and disrupting their support bases and neutralizing their capability,'' he said.
An Iraqi government spokesman said Abu Azzam, who's real name is Abdullah Najim Abdullah Mohamed al-Jawari, was an Iraqi. He was on a list of Iraq's 29 most-wanted insurgents issued by the US military in February and had a bounty of $50,000 on his head.
Mr. Cordesman says that Abu Azzam was a major figure in Al Qaeda in Iraq and his death followed recent improvements in US intelligence gathering and targeting of Al Qaeda leaders. But predicting the real dividends is difficult. "We don't know how many leaders there are, how many experienced cadres there are, how many replacements there are," he says.
Indeed, the US reported killing or capturing at least eight men said to be "top" members of the Zarqawi network in 2004, which did little to degrade the organization's ability to carry out attacks.
It's also not clear what the US defines as a "senior leader," or how hard they are to replace. General Bergner said Friday that since January, US and Iraqi forces have killed or captured at least 80 "senior leaders" in northern Iraq. However, insurgents have been much stronger in the north in 2005 than in 2004.
Militant Islamist groups like Zarqawi's, which share Osama bin Laden's vision of creating a global Sunni caliphate that would rule in the style of 7th century Arabia, are a tiny portion of Iraq's insurgency. But they have been the most willing to target Iraqi civilians and are committed to creating a civil war between Iraq's Shiite majority, who Zarqawi views as apostates, and the Sunni minority who ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
While destruction of Zarqawi's group is unlikely to end the war in Iraq, say analysts, it could bring an eventual political solution closer by removing the most radical actors from the country's war.
"We continue to degrade the leadership of the Al Qaeda in Iraqterrorist network, and continue to disrupt their operations by taking Abu Azzam off the street. We've dealt another blow to Zarqawi's terrorist organization," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for American and foreign troops in a statement Tuesday.
But analysts note that numerous reports earlier this year claimed that Zarqawi himself had been critically wounded in a gun-battle with US forces and was on death's door. These appeared to have been incorrect.
And in November 2004, 70 foreign fighters were alleged to have been killed in a single US bombing run on a mosque in Fallujah, which at that time was controlled by insurgents and was under siege by US Marines.
At the time, some news reports said the emir of Anbar Province, an Iraqi called Omar Hadid, was killed in that attack. Some reports also identified him as Abdullah Abu Azzam. Such confusion underscores how difficult it is to measure successes against a shadowy organization.
"The holy warrior Abu Azzam al-Iraqi is an Al Qaeda soldier who heads one of al Qaeda's units operating in Baghdad ... it has not been confirmed to us yet if he died," said a statement on an Islamist website often used by Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The successful Marine assault on Fallujah was described at the time as a major blow against Al Qaeda in Iraq. But in the 10 months since, the organization has continued to operate at a high tempo.