BAGHDAD (AFP) – Al-Qaeda has confirmed the deaths of its top two Iraq commanders in a joint US-Iraqi military raid, a US monitoring group said, days after a wave of apparent revenge attacks killed 58 Iraqis.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri, who had direct links with Osama bin Laden, were reported by Iraqi and US officials to have been killed in a shootout on April 18 near Tikrit in central Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in announcing the deaths on Monday said a major threat to the nation’s security had been removed while US Vice President Joe Biden said the killings were “potentially devastating blows to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
The SITE Intelligence Group service said that the Islamic State of Iraq, the branch of Al-Qaeda in the country, had in a statement posted late Saturday on jihadist Internet forums confirmed the deaths of the two men.
The ISI shariah minister, Abu al-Walid Abd al-Wahhab al-Mashadani, said the two leaders were attending a meeting when “enemy forces” engaged them in battle and launched an airstrike on their location, SITE said.
“We are proud to announce to you… that the Islamic Ummah once again lost two leaders… two heroes who were determined to follow the path of jihad, despite the severe adversity and the intensity of their burdens, as well as the aggressiveness of their enemies,” he said.
The joint operation that targeted the main Al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq took place 10 kilometres (six miles) from Tikrit, the home city of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Mashadani praised Baghdadi and Masri and announced that other Islamist groups in Iraq had joined the ISI.
“Discussions had already begun with them before and after the initiative of Sheikh Abu Omar (al-Baghdadi),” he said.
“If Allah fated that the two sheikhs be killed at this particular time, know that they left a unique generation behind, one that was raised before their eyes,” Mashadani added.
Baghdadi had been reported killed off or captured at least three times before and Al-Qaeda has previously issued denials, insisting he was still alive and free. This is the first time the group has acknowledged his death.
Maliki said that forensic tests had confirmed their identities of Baghdadi and Masri and insisted that Al-Qaeda was on the run.
On Friday, a wave of attacks across Iraq including five car bombs, three as prayers finished at Shiite mosques in Baghdad, killed 58 people.
A statement from Maliki’s office said the bombs were a direct response from insurgents angered by the killing of the two commanders.
“The aim of (Friday’s) attacks is to overshadow the big success achieved by the security services in killing the devil terrorist leaders and an attempt to prove their existence after that strike,” said Maliki’s statement.
On Saturday, another three bombs exploded in Al-Amel, another predominantly Shiite district of Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding 19.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama was briefed on the latest bloodshed but stressed that it would not alter US plans to withdraw all combat troops by the end of August.
At the height of Iraq’s sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007, Al-Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups killed thousands of civilians when they bombed markets and mosques crowded with Shiite civilians.
Although overall levels of violence have fallen in the past two years, a series of massive suicide attacks in Baghdad, including several on government buildings, since last August has proven that Al-Qaeda remains a potent threat.