U.S. and Iraqi forces killed the two top al-Qaida figures in the country in a nighttime rocket attack on a safe house near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, a joint operation the U.S. called a significant blow to the insurgency and a sign Iraqi security forces are strengthening.

Al-Qaida has remained a potent force, seeking most recently to sow chaos after the March 7 parliamentary elections and as U.S. forces prepare to go home. The terror group has shown a remarkable ability to change tactics and adapt despite repeated blows to its leadership.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the killings of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri at a news conference in Baghdad and showed reporters photographs of their bloody corpses. The deaths were later confirmed by U.S. military officials in a statement.

The Iraqi leader said ground forces surrounded the house and used rockets to kill the two, who were hiding in a safe house. The U.S. military said an American helicopter crashed during the nighttime assault, killing one U.S. soldier.

U.S. forces commander Gen. Raymond Odierno praised the operation.

“The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency,” he said. “There is still work to do but this is a significant step forward in ridding Iraq of terrorists.”

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the operation targeting the two leaders showed the growing capability of Iraqi security forces.
The Iraqi prime minister described the deaths as “a quality blow breaking the back of al-Qaida.”

Source: Lara Jakes and Qassim Abdul-Zahra for Yahoo! News AP.

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