Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri — both linked with Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden — died in a shootout Sunday near Tikrit, the home city of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, according to Iraqi and US officials.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hailed the joint US-Iraqi operation which he said had also helped to foil future attacks while US Vice President Joe Biden said the “deaths are potentially devastating blows to Al-Qaeda.”
The killings were swiftly followed on Tuesday by that of an Al-Qaeda leader responsible for planning attacks in the north of the country, an Iraqi official said, in a second combined forces operation.
Maliki and the US military said on Monday that Baghdadi and Masri were killed in a raid on a safehouse which yielded computers filled with emails and messages to bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The killings show that coordination between the Iraqi and US armies is improving but a prolonged fight lies ahead, Brian Fishman, a counter-terrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, told AFP.
“This is a big deal. Clearly US/Iraqi intelligence was on the ball, which will send ripple effects through Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” said Fishman, author of “Dysfunction and Decline: Lessons Learned from Inside Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
“Al-Masri’s death eliminates a key link to Al-Qaeda central (bin Laden), but that does not mean there are not others,” he added.
Maliki, who displayed pictures of Baghdadi and Masri before and after their deaths, said Al-Qaeda was now “bleeding... and severely weakened,” and that a major threat to the country’s security had been removed.
Fishman, however, who noted that the Iraqi authorities have on several past occasions said Baghdadi had been captured or killed, still expressed doubts.
“I need to see more information about Baghdadi. There has been so much bad information released about this persona in the past that I remain a sceptic — open to be convinced, but still a sceptic,” he said.
US forces have always said Masri — a veteran Egyptian militant named Al-Qaeda chief in June 2006 after the death of his better-known Jordanian predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a US air raid — was the real Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader.
The US statement that backed up Sunday’s killings notably referred to Masri before it mentioned Baghdadi.
Charles Heyman, a Britain-based defence analyst, said the killing of the two AQI leaders proved that the Iraqi and US militaries were working better together, but a long road in taming the insurgency lay ahead.
“This shows that the Americans and the Iraqis are coordinating their intelligence activities, but the important thing here is that, when leaders are taken out, is there somebody there to replace them?” said Heyman.
“You also have to look at the middle ranks in terror organisations. In many of them an action like Sunday’s just creates a vacancy in the hierarchy which someone can step into.
“The only way to judge the overall situation is to look at the level of violence in a country, and there is still lots of violence in Iraq,” he added.
General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, said that the killings of Baghdadi and Masri followed joint actions “over the last several months” that had “continued to degrade AQI.”
And Odierno’s predecessor, General David Petraeus, now head of US Central Command, said in a statement that Baghdadi and Masri’s “deaths constitute another major milestone in the effort to defeat extremism in Iraq.”
Iraqi defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari told AFP that the killings were evidence that the insurgent network was being hunted down.
“We now have the complete structure of AQI and its links with all other countries,” Askari said.
Askari’s claim was backed up to a degree on Tuesday when Iraqi authorities announced they had killed Ahmed al-Obeidi, also known as Abu Suheib, the military chief of Al-Qaeda for the provinces of Nineveh, Salaheddin and Kirkuk.
“He was killed this morning during a joint Iraqi-US operation in Mosul,” Baghdad security forces spokesman Major General Qassim Atta told AFP.
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