The U.S. government today confirmed that the top two leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq were killed in a joint U.S- Iraqi raid this weekend that Vice President Joe Biden says dealt "devastating blows" to the insurgent group's operations.
The deaths of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri were first announced in Baghdad earlier today by Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al Maliki.
The two insurgent leaders were killed in a nighttime raid Sunday on a safe house about six miles (10 kilometers) southwest of the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit. The raid resulted from a series of Iraqi led joint operations over the previous week that led to the safe house.
Al-Masri was described by U.S. officials as being the military leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni terror group that has carried out bloody attacks on U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians. Al-Masri had replaced the notorious Abu Musab al Zarqawi as head of the group after Zarqawi was killed in a June 2006 air strike.
Al-Baghdadi was the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that al Qaeda in Iraq claimed had united the country's Sunni insurgency. Premature reports of al-Baghdadi's capture or death in recent years had led to speculation that the elusive figure may not have existed at all, and was just a paper figurehead.
However, a statement from U.S. Forces Iraq confirming the deaths of the insurgent leaders identified al Baghdadi as being Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al Zawi.
Noticeably different from past claims of al-Baghdadi or al-Masri's demise were the number of senior U.S. officials who stepped forward to confirm the terrorist leaders death today.
Biden told reporters that their deaths were "devastating blows to al Qaeda-Iraq. But equally important, in my view, is this action demonstrates the improved security, strength and capacity of Iraqi security forces."
He emphasized that the operation was Iraqi led and "was based on intelligence the Iraqi security forces themselves developed following their capture of a senior AQI leader last month.""
Death of Al Qaeda Leders Shows Improvement of Iraqi Military
Biden hailed the deaths of the insurgent leaders as an important milestone that demonstrated that "the future of Iraq will not be shaped by those who seek to destroy that country, but belong to those who are building a strong and unified Iraq, as I'm confident the Iraqis will do."
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, called their deaths "potentially the most significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency." He cautioned, however, that "there is still work to do, but this is a significant step forward in ridding Iraq of terrorists."
The commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, congratulated the forces involved in the raid. He said al-Baghdadi and al-Masri "were responsible for barbaric attacks that killed thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens and Iraqi and Coalition Security Force members."
Al Qaeda in Iraq's operations have waned as the security situation has improved in Iraq over the past year, but they have still carried out a number of significant high-profile bombings that have resulted in large civilian casualties. The Sunni group has tried to use these attacks to rekindle the deadly sectarian violence that dominated Iraqi life in recent years.
Though Petraeus said the group has the capability to carry out these high-profile attacks, he said he is encouraged by Iraqi government's commitment to continue the fight against the terror group.
A statement from U.S. Forces Iraq said a joint U.S.-Iraqi security team "identified both AQI members, and the terrorists were killed after engaging the security team."
Also killed in the raid was a son of al-Baghdadi, as well as al- Masri's assistant, who were both said to be engaging in terrorist activity. An additional 16 suspects were also rounded up as part of the joint operations that resulted in the raid.
A U.S. military official told ABC News today that there is "direct physical proof" that identifies both al Masri and al Baghdadi as having been killed in the attacks. During his news conference in Baghdad, Maliki showed photographs of their bloody corpses.
Helicopter That Crashed Sunday Was Part of Raid on al Qaeda
The U.S. military also confirmed today that a fatal helicopter crash Sunday involved forces that were part of the raid. One soldier was killed and three others were wounded when the helicopter went down. Officials said the helicopter did not go down as the result of enemy fire.