By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; A05
BAGHDAD -- The two top leaders of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq were slain in a U.S. airstrike over the weekend, a decisive tactical victory for American and Iraqi forces and one that provides Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with additional political leverage at a crucial time.
Acting on a tip they received in recent days, Iraqi and U.S. Special Forces descended on a safe house shared by the leaders of the Sunni Muslim insurgent group in Tikrit, in northern Iraq, officials said Monday.
As the troops approached the house, an explosion occurred inside, likely the result of a suicide bombing, U.S. officials said. American forces then quickly dropped a bomb on the house, U.S. officials said.
Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian who was the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the shadowy leader of the group's umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, were among those killed in the operation early Sunday, Maliki and U.S. officials said.
"The deaths of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency," Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, said in a statement.
One American soldier was killed and three were injured during the operation in a helicopter crash, the U.S. military said. Officials emphasized that Iraqi troops had led the operation.
After being markedly weakened during the U.S. troop surge in 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq reemerged as a serious threat last year with a series of spectacular attacks that struck at the heart of the Iraqi state, casting a pall over its Shiite-led government and the impending drawdown of American troops.
Today, the group no longer has a steady supply of foreign funding, grass-roots support, or scores of foreign fighters willing to travel to Iraq to carry out suicide bombings. The killing of Masri and Baghdadi will only weaken the group further.
But writing the obituary of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq would be premature, U.S. officials warned.
"Nobody thinks this is the end of their brand of extremism," a U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Officials say the group could draw more recruits if Sunnis continue to feel disenfranchised by the Shiite-dominated political establishment and decide to resort to violence. Their disillusionment could be further exacerbated as U.S. troops, seen largely as their protectors, pull out.
U.S. officials also note that al-Qaeda in Iraq has a history of rapidly propping up new leaders.
Maliki announced Masri's and Baghdadi's deaths during a televised news conference. The announcement was initially met with skepticism: Maliki's government has in the past falsely reported the death and the capture of Baghdadi, most recently last spring. It never retracted the claim.
U.S. officials asserted Monday, however, that they were certain that Masri and Baghdadi had been killed, saying DNA evidence had been used to confirm their identities.
Maliki stands to gain from the slaying of the men -- Masri was perhaps the most wanted person in Iraq -- at a time that is critical to his political future. He has made restoring security and weaning Iraq from dependence on the U.S. military centerpieces of his bid to keep his job once a new parliament is seated. Maliki's bloc, which came in second in the elections, securing 89 seats, must woo other coalitions in order to secure the 163 votes needed to appoint a new prime minister.
Monday's announcement appeared to put to rest the debate over whether Baghdadi was a fictional character, a real person or a composite. U.S. intelligence officials said in 2007 that they thought Baghdadi was a fictional figure created by non-Iraqi leaders to bolster the standing of the foreign-led extremist organization in a deeply nationalistic country. They later speculated that several leaders used the nom de guerre.
On Monday, U.S. officials identified Baghdadi as Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi.
Masri, who was also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer but whose real name was Yusif al-Dardiri, rose to the helm of the organization after Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006.
U.S. officials said one of Baghdadi's sons and one of Masri's assistants also were killed in the operation. Iraqi officials took 16 other men into custody, the U.S. military said.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq was the largest and deadliest insurgent group spawned by the deep dissatisfaction and sense of disenfranchisement many Sunnis felt after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion gave rise to a Shiite-dominated government.
At its peak in 2006 and 2007, the group carried out massive car bombings and suicide attacks targeting mainly Shiite Muslim civilians, fueling a wave of sectarian violence that drove the country to the brink of anarchy. It also killed scores of U.S. troops.
The Islamic State of Iraq branded itself as a parallel state that sought to depose the U.S.-backed government and run Iraq based on dogmatic Islamic ideology.
Some Iraqis were buoyed by the news of the deaths. Mohammed Abbas, 25, a policeman, was among a group of officers celebrating on the street Monday evening.
"Maliki wouldn't show up on TV if the news wasn't true," he said.
Nearby, shopkeeper Mahmood Hussein, 45, was less enthusiastic.
"Al-Qaeda can replace their leaders, and terrorism and violence will not end in Iraq," he said. "The Iraqi citizens don't care about this news. We care about job opportunities and a new government forming soon that won't be as greedy."
Staff writers Greg Miller and Anne E. Kornblut in Washington and special correspondent Aziz Alwan in Baghdad contributed to this report.