BAGHDAD (AP) -- 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, both countries said Monday, hailing the attack as a significant blow to the insurgency.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has remained a potent force, seeking recently to sow chaos after the March 7 elections and ahead of a planned U.S. troop withdrawal. 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.
The Iraqi leader said ground forces surrounded a house and used rockets to kill the two, who were hiding inside. The U.S. military said an American helicopter crashed during the assault, killing one U.S. soldier.
In Washington, Vice President Joe Biden called the killing of the two a "potentially devastating blow" to al-Qaida in Iraq.
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.
U.S. military officials have been highlighting the role of Iraqi security forces in the country as a way to demonstrate their ability to take over security as American forces draw down. Under a plan by President Barack Obama, all combat forces will be out of Iraq by the end of August, leaving about 50,000 U.S. forces in the country for such roles as trainers and support personnel.
Al-Maliki described the deaths as "a quality blow breaking the back of al-Qaida."