BAGHDAD — The U.S. and Iraq claimed a major victory against al-Qaida yesterday, saying their forces killed the terror group's two top figures in this country in an air and ground assault on their safehouse near Saddam Hussein's hometown.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the killings of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri at a news conference and showed photographs of their bloody corpses. U.S. military officials later confirmed the deaths, which Vice President Joe Biden called a "potentially devastating blow" to al-Qaida in Iraq.
The organization has proven resilient in the past, showing a remarkable ability to change tactics and adapt — most notably after its brutal founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed nearly four years ago in a U.S. airstrike.
Still, some analysts contend, the group was far stronger then and would likely have a harder time now replenishing its leadership and sticking to a timetable of attacks.
"The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency," Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in a statement.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has remained a dangerous force as the U.S. prepares to withdraw most of its troops. The terror group has launched repeated attacks on civilian targets in Baghdad in an attempt to sow chaos and exploit political deadlock in the wake of the inconclusive March 7 parliamentary elections.
Yesterday's announcement comes at a critical time for al-Maliki, who has staked his reputation on being the man who can restore stability to Iraq after years of bloodshed. The prime minister is locked in a tight contest with secular challenger Ayad Allawi to see who will form the next government. Al-Maliki's coalition trails Allawi's bloc by two seats in the 325-seat parliament, and neither has yet been able to secure enough support from other parties to muster a majority.