Iraqi officials Wednesday released new details of a raid that led to killing of the two top Al Qaeda in Iraq figures over the weekend, while officials said inroads in dismantling the network over the past several months could prove more damaging to the group than the leaders’ deaths.
Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta said Iraqi special forces backed by US troops launched the raid on a farmhouse near Tikrit at dawn on Sunday after receiving information that it was being used as an Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) safehouse.
On state-run television, Atta displayed photos that showed a partially destroyed mud-brick farmhouse surrounded by high walls and empty fields that was the target of the operation that killed Abu Ayub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
Atta said security forces evacuated the farmhouse of women and children before throwing in a stun grenade. A US airstrike launched after gunmen in the house started firing appears to have detonated a suicide vest worn by Masri and possibly another of the other three men in the underground bunker.
It was unclear whether Masri and Baghdadi were killed in the airstrike or by the suicide vests.
“There was a rocket, there were bullets flying everywhere, I’d be lying if I told you that we knew,” Iraqi military spokesman Mohammad al-Askari said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Askari said another significant AQI figure believed to be an aide to Baghdadi, known as Ayoub Jassim, was wounded in the attack and arrested.
He said 16 people were in the farm complex along with Masri, Baghdadi, and two other Al Qaeda members, including Baghdadi’s son. When Iraqi commandos entered the house, they discovered a trap door leading to an underground bunker. They exchanged fire from the bunker before retreating and ordering Baghdadi’s wife to go back in to ask her husband to surrender. When he refused, they called in the airstrike, Askari said.
A US soldier was killed and three soldiers wounded when a helicopter involved in the raid crashed due to what was believed to be mechanical failure. There was no mention of Iraqi soldiers killed or wounded in the operation.
The deaths of Masri and Baghdadi are among the biggest public blows to Al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.
“This is a historic achievement for Iraqi security forces,” Atta told Iraqiya television, saying that Iraqis had been in the lead backed by US forces. Askari said troops from an Iraqi commando battalion attached to the 54th Army Brigade from Baghdad stormed the farmhouse with US forces providing the security cordon and air support. Masri, an Egyptian with links to Al Qaeda's central leadership, is believed to have taken over AQI after the killing of Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi four years ago.
“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."
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.)