Iraqi and US security forces believe they have killed the two senior leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq in what the American military said could be the most significant blow to the organization since it was formed.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced Monday that the two men known as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri were killed in a raid in northern Iraq on Sunday. He displayed for state television photographs of the bodies of two men identified as al-Baghdadi and al-Masri, both of them noms de guerre for high-ranking leaders of the organization.
Iraqi officials have incorrectly announced the death of al-Baghdadi several times over the past two years. This time, a US military spokesman said DNA testing has proven the demise of both men.
The US military said that Iraqi and American security forces killed the two in raids Sunday just southwest of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. A military statement said a series of operations over the last week led them to a safe house where the men were hiding. US forces appear to have called in a rocket attack on the house after gunmen inside opened fire.
A US soldier was killed in the operation and three others wounded when their helicopter crashed during the overnight operation. The US military said previously the aircraft was not downed by enemy fire and it was investigating the cause of the crash.
Masri, the military leader for AQI, was believed to have replaced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former Jordanian-born leader of the organization killed in Iraq four years ago. The military said Masri was directly responsible for high-profile bombings and attacks against Iraqis.
US Forces also said Hami Dawud Muhammad Khalil al Zawi, also known as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, was also killed in the raid. Baghdadi's son and an assistant to Masri were also killed.
The US military called the killings a “potentially devastating blow” to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to Al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency,” said the United States Forces-Iraq Commander, General Raymond Odierno. He said the Iraqi government’s intelligence and security forces along with US intelligence and special operations forces have continued to degrade AQI over the last several months in Iraq.
The organization is believed to have been considerably weakened with its lines of command and control disrupted by US and Iraqi operations but it has shown it is still capable of carrying out complex, high-profile operations such as a series of bombings against embassies earlier this month.
Counter-terrorism experts have said in the past that killing Baghdadi and Masri could weaken Al Qaeda in Iraq and its ability to recruit members but would probably not end attacks by the increasingly decentralized group.