Published: Apr 20, 2010 10:11 AM EDT

     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."
      Al-Masri was the shadowy national leader of al-Qaida in Iraq,
which he took over after its Jordanian-born founder, Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, was killed in a June 2006 U.S. airstrike. Al-Masri's
real name was Abdul-Monim al-Badawi, according to a 2009 al-Qaida
statement describing the makeup of a new "War Cabinet."
      Al-Qaida in Iraq emerged after al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance
to Osama bin Laden, leader of the global al-Qaida network, in
October 2004. It has survived a series of setbacks in recent years.
      At its height, the group was able to inflame sectarian violence
so intense that some described it as a civil war.
      Though al-Qaida has shown it is still capable of staging its
hallmark coordinated suicide attacks against high-profile targets
in the heart of the capital, U.S. and Iraqi military operations
have diminished its power since the height of the violence several
years ago.
      A revolt against al-Qaida by Sunni Arab tribes in Western Iraq
in late 2006 and 2007 deprived the group of its main bases of
support. Taking advantage of the vulnerability, the U.S. pummeled
the group during the 2007 troop surge.
      Al-Qaida in Iraq has been led primarily by foreigners, but
Iraqis form its backbone. At its height, it was estimated at close
to 10,000 fighters but it is believed to have dropped off in recent
years.
      Al-Masri, an Egyptian, kept a lower public profile than
al-Zarqawi, who appeared in militant videos on the Web including
one in which he personally beheaded American Nicholas Berg.
      The deaths are a significant boost for al-Maliki, who has staked
his reputation on being the man who can restore stability to Iraq
after years of bloodshed.
      The news came as Iraq's election commission announced it would
recount ballots cast in Baghdad in the March 7 election, after
al-Maliki's State of Law coalition raised accusations of fraud and
irregularities in the capital as well as four other provinces.
      Al-Maliki's coalition is currently trailing one led by a secular
challenger, Ayad Allawi, and the recount could potentially give the
Iraqi prime minister the lead.