BAGHDAD -- U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed the top two leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq and detained a large number of their followers, officials said Monday, in what appears to be a major strike against the persistent extremist group blamed for a string of recent bombings that have destabilized the nation.
Army Gen. Ray T. Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, called the deaths "potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting to hold on to his post in a new government after last month's disputed election, appeared on television to trumpet the killings, calling them a "triumph" for the Iraqi security forces that "broke the back of al-Qaida."
The two al-Qaida in Iraq leaders, Abu Hamza Muhajir and Abu Omar al Baghdadi, were killed Sunday in an Iraqi-led raid supported by U.S. forces on an al-Qaida hideout in a remote corner of Anbar province, southwest of Tikrit, officials said. A U.S. soldier was killed when a helicopter crashed, the U.S. military said.
Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was an Egyptian who was anointed by Osama bin Laden to head al-Qaida in Iraq after the 2006 killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi. Abu Omar Baghdadi, headed the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization formed by al-Qaida in 2006 to give the organization a more Iraqi identity.