US Soldier Dies in Raid That Kills Top al-Qaeda Leaders in Iraq

Baghdad – Iraqi and U.S. security forces said Monday that they’d killed the two top leaders of al Qaida in Iraq in what the American military said could be the most significant blow to the militant Sunni Muslim organization since it was formed.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki announced that the men known as Abu Omar al Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al Masri were killed Sunday in a raid in northern Iraq. He displayed photographs for state television of the bodies of Baghdadi and Masri, both noms de guerre for leaders of the group.

“I give the happy tidings of the strike, which targeted and killed Abu Omar al Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al Masri, who were hiding in a hole in Tharthar area,” Maliki said at a news conference in Baghdad.

Vice President Joe Biden on Monday called the killings of the two “potentially devastating blows” to al Qaida in Iraq. “But equally important, in my view,” he added, “is this action demonstrates the improved security, strength and capacity of Iraqi security forces. The Iraqis led this operation, and it was based on intelligence the Iraqi security forces themselves developed following their capture of a senior AQI leader last month.”

Iraqi officials mistakenly had announced Baghdadi’s death several times over the past two years, but this time a U.S. military spokesman said that DNA testing had proved that both men were dead.

“The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency,” said Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

He said the Iraqi government’s intelligence and security forces, along with U.S. intelligence and special operations forces, had continued to wear down al Qaida in Iraq over the last several months.

However, a recent study by a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, Jenna Jordan, published this month in the journal Security Studies, concluded that killing the leaders of terrorist groups, particularly religious ones, “is not an effective counterterrorism strategy.”

In fact, Jordan found: “Groups that have not had their leaders targeted have a higher rate of decline than groups whose leaders have been removed. Decapitation is actually counterproductive, particularly for larger, older, religious or separatist organizations.”

Four years ago, then-President George W. Bush said the killing of Masri’s predecessor, Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi, had dealt a “severe blow” to al Qaida in Iraq, but the U.S. military said Monday that Masri had been responsible for high-profile bombings and attacks against Iraqis.

U.S. and Iraqi operations have disrupted the group’s lines of command and control, and the temporary surge of additional American troops to Iraq — coupled with financial and other support for Sunnis who oppose the extremists — has weakened the militants, but they’ve shown that they’re still capable of carrying out complex, high-profile operations such as a series of bombings against embassies this month.

The U.S. military said that Iraqi and American security forces had killed Masri and Baghdadi in raids Sunday just southwest of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. A military statement said that a series of operations over the last week had led them to a safe house where the men were hiding. U.S. forces appear to have called in a rocket attack on the house after gunmen inside opened fire.

American forces said that Baghdadi’s son and an assistant to Masri also were killed.

A U.S. soldier was killed in the operation and three others were wounded when their helicopter crashed during the overnight raid. The American military previously had said the aircraft wasn’t downed by enemy fire, and it was investigating the cause of the crash.

Also Monday, a three-judge Iraqi judicial committee ordered a recount in Baghdad of votes cast in parliamentary elections March 7. Maliki, who lost the election to former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi by two seats, had demanded a recount.

“To consolidate these security gains and to honor the sacrifice that so many have made,” Biden said, “it’s now incumbent upon Iraqi political leaders to take the next and important necessary step to form an inclusive and representative government that meets the needs and aspirations of the Iraqi people.

“We remain committed to end our combat mission in Iraq … by the end of August 2010 and, in accordance with the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that was signed a couple of years ago, to remove all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.”

(Arraf is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent and Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report from Baghdad. McClatchy and the Monitor operate the Baghdad bureau jointly.)