Iraq raid blows away top Qaeda leaders
http://www.nypost.com – Al Qaeda in Iraq’s two top leaders, who had direct links to Osama bin Laden, were killed by US and Iraqi forces in what Vice President Joe Biden yesterday hailed as a “devastating” blow to the terror network.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri were tracked down to a terrorist safe house near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and blown up in a nighttime rocket attack when they tried to hide in a ditch following a shootout, Iraqi and US officials said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki showed reporters photos of their bloody corpses and said the raid was part of a massive sweep that uncovered evidence that could foil attacks, including a planned assault on Baghdad’s churches.
“During the operations, computers were seized with e-mails and messages to the two biggest terrorists, Osama bin Laden and [his No. 2] Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Maliki said in Baghdad.
US officials, burned before by claims that they had caught or killed both men, could barely suppress their elation.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq, called the deaths “potentially the most significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.”
Masri, known as “the Egyptian” and by several aliases, had been at the top of the United States’ most-wanted list since he became head of all al Qaeda operations in 2006, when his predecessor was blown up in a US air raid.
Baghdadi, who also had several aliases, was an even more shadowy figure. His existence — as head of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda front group — was proclaimed by terrorist propaganda outlets.
But in 2007, US military officials said that he didn’t exist and that recordings of what was purported to be Baghdadi’s voice were actually that of an Iraqi actor.
Word of the deaths was delayed until they were confirmed by DNA tests yesterday.
Officials said yesterday that Baghdadi’s son and Masri’s assistant were killed in the joint Iraqi-US operation. Sixteen suspected terrorists were also rounded up.
Biden said the sweep’s success “demonstrates the improved security strength and capacity of Iraqi security forces.”
He said that the Iraqis led the operation and that it was based on intelligence their security forces developed after capturing another senior al Qaeda leader last month.
The US military said an American helicopter crashed during the Sunday assault, killing one GI. Biden called the unidentified American a “young hero.”
At its height, al Qaeda in Iraq was estimated at close to 10,000 fighters, but its membership is believed to have dropped off in recent years.
“Their leaders are falling,” Maliki said. “Al Qaeda has become too weak to represent a danger to Iraq.”
Nevertheless, Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus said the two slain leaders were responsible for attacks that “killed thousands” of Iraqis and members of the US-led coalition.