THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Iraqi insurgent group confirms leaders’ deaths

But defiant Al Qaeda offshoot vows to continue battling

Mourners yesterday carried the coffin of a relative killed in a bombing in the Shi’ite city of Najaf, Iraq. Mourners yesterday carried the coffin of a relative killed in a bombing in the Shi’ite city of Najaf, Iraq. (Alaa Al-Marjani/ Associated Press)
By Sinan Salaheddin
Associated Press / April 26, 2010

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BAGHDAD — An Al Qaeda front group in Iraq yesterday confirmed the killing of its two top leaders but vowed to keep up the fight despite claims by US and Iraqi officials that the deaths could be a devastating blow to the terror network.

The defiance came in a statement released a week after the group’s leaders — Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri — were killed in a raid by Iraqi and US security forces on their safe house near Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

“After a long journey filled with sacrifices and fighting falsehood and its representatives, two knights have dismounted to join the group of martyrs,’’ the statement said. “We announce that the Muslim nation has lost two of the leaders of jihad, and two of its men, who are only known as heroes on the path of jihad.’’

The four-page statement by the Islamic State of Iraq was posted on a militant website early yesterday.

It concluded: “The war is still ongoing, and the favorable outcome will be for the pious.’’

The Islamic State of Iraq is an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi was its self-described leader and was so elusive that at times US officials questioned whether he was a real person or merely a composite of a terrorist to give an Iraqi face to an organization led primarily by foreigners.

Al-Masri, a weapons expert who was trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, was the shadowy national leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Their deaths were triumphantly announced last Monday by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. US Vice President Joe Biden called the killings a “potentially devastating blow’’ to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

But four days later, officials believe Al Qaeda struck back, bombing mosques, shops, and the office of an influential Shi’ite cleric, killing 72 people in Iraq’s bloodiest day of the year so far. Homes of police also were bombed. Al-Maliki said the insurgents were fighting back after the deaths of their two leaders.

The new statement did not mention Friday’s bombings, and no group has claimed responsibility for them yet. But the statement signals that Al Qaeda will remain a threat to Iraq even without its top two leaders, and urges its members and supporters to stay the course.

“Commit to what those two leaders stood for,’’ the statement says. “Transform the blood of those two leaders into light and fire — a light which will illuminate the path before you and facilitate your ability of speech, and a fire against the enemies of the creed and the religion.’’

Al Qaeda in Iraq has proven resilient in the past, showing a remarkable ability to change tactics and adapt, most notably after its brutal founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed nearly four years ago in a US airstrike. Still, it is widely believed the group was far stronger then and would probably have a harder time now replenishing its leadership and sticking to a timetable of attacks.

Al-Maliki has seized on the militants’ killings to show he can restore stability to Iraq after years of bloodshed. Following his political coalition’s second-place finish in the March 7 parliamentary elections, al-Maliki is locked in a tight contest with secular challenger Ayad Allawi to see who will form the next government.

Al-Maliki’s coalition trails Allawi’s bloc by two seats in the 325-seat parliament, and neither has yet been able to secure enough support from other parties to muster a majority.

Meanwhile, the police chief in Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad, said troops raided the nearby town of al-Safra and arrested Burhan Mahmoud Mohammed, a local leader of the Islamic State of Iraq.

Colonel Fatah al-Khafaji said troops acted on intelligence but did not indicate exactly where the information came from. Iraqi officials have said the investigation into al-Baghdadi and al-Masri, especially the arrest in March of a senior Al Qaeda official, has also led them to other leaders associated with the insurgency.

In Baghdad, a so-called sticky bomb attached to the underside of a civilian’s car exploded, killing the driver and wounding six passersby, according to a police officer and a medic at the nearby al-Yarmouk hospital, where the victims were taken. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Also yesterday, an explosion at an iron factory in the northern city of Irbil killed five workers — two Indians, two Arabs, and a Kurd — and wounded 15. Workers from India and other Asian nations have flocked to the Kurdish region in recent years as the economy there has grown.

Police Chief Abdul-Khaliq Talaat said the cause of the explosion was not immediately known.