BAGHDAD - Iraq released new details Wednesday of a raid that led to the killings of the two top al-Qaeda in Iraq figures over the weekend, while officials said inroads in dismantling the network over the last several months could prove more damaging to the group than the leaders' deaths.
Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta said Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. troops launched the raid on a farmhouse near Tikrit at dawn Sunday after receiving information that it was being used as an al-Qaeda in Iraq safe house. On state-run television, Atta displayed photos that showed a partially destroyed farmhouse surrounded by high walls and empty fields that was the target of the operation that killed Abu Ayub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
Atta said security forces evacuated the farmhouse of women and children before throwing in a stun grenade. A U.S. air strike launched after gunmen in the house started firing appears to have detonated a suicide vest worn by al-Masri and possibly another of the other three men in the underground bunker. It was unclear whether Masri and Baghdadi were killed in the air strike or by the suicide vests.
"There was a rocket, there were bullets flying everywhere. I'd be lying if I told you that we knew," Iraqi military spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said.
Askari said another significant al-Qaeda figure believed to be an aide to Baghdadi was wounded in the attack and arrested. Sixteen people were in the farm complex along with Masri, Baghdadi, and two other al-Qaeda members, he said.
When Iraqi commandos entered the house, they discovered a trap door leading to an underground bunker. They exchanged fire from the bunker before retreating and ordering Baghdadi's wife to go back in to ask her husband to surrender. When he refused, they called in the air strike, Askari said. A U.S. soldier was killed and three soldiers wounded.
The deaths of Masri and Baghdadi are among the biggest public blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.
"Masri was physically developing the campaign plans for the timing, the type of targets that they were going to hit. Baghdadi was more the Iraqi face, the political party head of the Islamic State of Iraq - al-Qaeda in Iraq," U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Rob Baker said. "From what we could tell, they very often collaborated on the strategies they were going to follow."
The announcement was also a publicity coup for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting to retain leadership of the country after preliminary results in national elections gave his party two fewer seats than his main challenger. Askari said Maliki had overseen the intelligence cell that led in the operation.
While the deaths have major symbolic and operational significance for al-Qaeda in Iraq, officials said a series of raids in the last three months could prove more important in dismantling the network.
At least 57 suspected al-Qaeda figures have been arrested in the last two weeks in Baghdad and Anbar province, said Baker. From January to March, 280 suspected al-Qaeda members were captured and eight killed, he said.