Iraqi and U.S. troops killed a regional leader of al-Qaida in Iraq in an early morning raid Tuesday, as security forces continue to put pressure on the terrorist organization following the reported deaths of its two top-ranking figures over the weekend, officials said.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri were killed in a joint operation Sunday in what Vice President Joe Biden called a "potentially devastating blow" to al-Qaida in Iraq.
The intelligence that led to the elusive leaders' desert safehouse about six miles southwest of Tikrit came from the same source — a senior al-Qaida operative captured last month — that produced the information leading to Tuesday's raid, according to a senior Iraqi military intelligence officer who supervised both operations.
Building on information provided by the captured al-Qaida agent, Iraqi intelligence services were able to track down all three of the men, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the clandestine nature of his job.
The killing of the al-Qaida figures comes at a critical moment for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has staked his reputation on being the man who can restore stability to Iraq after years of bloodshed.
His coalition came in second in March's national election, but neither he nor his main rival have been able to muster enough support to form a new government.
Prime minister involved
The intelligence officer said al-Maliki personally oversaw the operations, and received daily briefings from him.
In Tuesday's raid, American and Iraqi joint forces launched a morning attack in the northern province of Ninevah, killing suspected insurgent leader Ahmed al-Obeidi, Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said.
Al-Moussawi said the slain insurgent, known as Abu Suhaib, was in charge of al-Qaida in Iraq's operations in the provinces of Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Ninevah.
Iraqi and American troops routinely share intelligence information, and it was a U.S. tip — which then generated more information from Iraqi informants — that led authorities to the isolated desert area outside Tikrit where al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were hiding, according to a U.S. official.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity so that he could talk more candidly about the operation.
Pictures of the remote one-story safehouse, shown exclusively to the AP by the Iraqi military intelligence officer, showed its roof caved in and its mudbrick walls partially destroyed.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza said the bodies of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were identified using DNA matching, as well as fingerprint analysis and other methods.
"We have extreme confidence that these are the two individuals," he told the AP.
The Iraqi officer said Iraqi troops surrounded the safehouse and a firefight began with those inside. Iraqi forces then radioed American helicopters, which fired missiles at the house and the shooting from inside stopped, the officer said.
Iraqi forces had been hesitant to storm the house because they had heard al-Masri might be wearing a suicide vest, he said.
Once the shooting stopped, they went inside and found two women still alive — one was al-Masri's wife — and four dead men who have been identified as al-Masri, his assistant, al-Baghdadi and al-Baghdadi's son. A suicide vest was found on al-Masri's corpse, the officer said.
In the wake of the attack, Lanza said American and Iraqi security forces would be keeping pressure on al-Qaida.
"They're still a threat here, and we will not lose sight of that," he told The Associated Press.
The terrorist organization in the past has reacted to the deaths of leading figures with new attacks, but it was not immediately clear whether scattered violence Tuesday across the country was related.
In one incident north of Baghdad, gunmen stormed into the home of a member of a Sunni group that joined forces with the Americans to fight al-Qaida in Iraq, killing his wife, his 22-year-old daughter, and his three other children ages 8 to 12, a police officer said.
The member of the local Sahwa, or Awakening Council, was working a shift at a nearby checkpoint and discovered the bodies when he returned to his home in Tarmiyah, about 30 miles north of Baghdad, the officer said. An Interior Ministry official confirmed the deaths.
Elsewhere, a police colonel and his driver were killed by a roadside bomb in the western city of Hit, while seven other policemen and four civilians were injured in bombings in Ramadi and Baghdad, according to police officers in the cities.
The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the press.