Al-Qaeda’s two top Iraq leaders killed in raid

Iraqi security forces backed by United States troops killed al-Qaeda’s top two leaders in Iraq in what the US military described on Monday as a “potentially devastating blow” to the militant group.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said al-Qaeda’s Iraq leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of its local affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, were found dead in a hole in the ground inside a house after it was surrounded and stormed by troops.

The deaths could be a major setback to the stubborn insurgency at a time when Iraq is emerging from the sectarian slaughter unleashed after the 2003 US-led invasion but still struggling to end suicide bombings and other attacks.

“The death of these two terrorists is a potentially devastating blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq,” the US military in Iraq said in a statement.

The killings may boost al-Maliki’s stature as he tries to ensure his reappointment as prime minister following a March 7 general election that produced no outright winner.

Al-Maliki’s ambitions for a second term are proving to be a stumbling block to the formation of an alliance between Iraq’s two main Shi’ite Muslim political groups that would give them the clout to form a coalition government.

Al-Maliki said al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and thought to be an Egyptian, and al-Baghdadi were killed in Thar-Thar, a rural area 80km north-west of Baghdad that is regarded as a hotbed of al-Qaeda activity.

The US military said the operation took place on Sunday 10km south-west of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town.

“The attack was carried out by ground forces, which surrounded the house, and also through the use of missiles,” al-Maliki told a news conference. “US forces also participated.”

A US soldier died in a helicopter crash during the assault, the US military said. It had previously said the crash was an accident and not due to hostile fire.

An assistant of al-Masri’s and a son of al-Baghdadi’s were also killed in the fighting and at least 16 people were arrested.

Al-Maliki said the house was destroyed and the bodies of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were found in a hole in the ground inside in which they had been hiding. — Reuters

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