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Are Iraqi Al Qaeda Leaders Really Dead?

U.S. intelligence and defense officials say "indications" have reached Washington appearing to substantiate claims by the Iraqi government that its security forces over the weekend killed the two most senior leaders of Al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate. However, given the fact that in the past similar claims sometimes turned out to be premature—in that Qaeda operatives who had been allegedly killed miraculously came back to life—some American officials remain cautious, saying they don't have 100 percent confirmation that the Iraqi government's reports are true.

According to a press release issued by the U.S. military, U.S. forces supported Iraqi forces on Sunday when they claim to have killed the two Al Qaeda leaders in a night-time raid on the safehouse where they were hiding, 10 kilometers south of Tikrit, former hometown of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The official statement identified the two dead Iraqi leaders as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir, an Egyptian who supposedly is the military commander of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi, otherwise known as Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, whom Iraqi authorities say served as leader of a shadow Iraqi government which Al Qaeda had set up called the Islamic State of Iraq. Zawi supposedly held the title "Prince of the Faithful" among Al Qaeda followers.

Iraqi authorities said that Abu Ayyub al-Masri had replaced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the notoriously bloodthirsty Jordanian jihadist who built up Al Qaeda in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, after Zarqawi was killed in June of 2006. The authorities claimed Masri had been "directly responsible for high profile bombings and attacks against the people of Iraq."

The official announcement by the U.S. military claimed that the Al Qaeda operatives were killed after engaging raiding security forces in a firefight. Also killed in the clash, according to Iraqi and some U.S. officials, were an assistant to Masri's and a son of Baghdadi, both of whom were allegedly also engaged in terrorist activities. Iraqi authorities also took 16 suspects into custody. The official communique quoted Gen. Ray Odierno, U.S. military commander in Iraq, saying that: "The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency." It also noted that during the operation, a U.S. soldier was killed when an American helicopter crashed.

A senior U.S. Defense official told Declassified that he believed that the Iraqi reports about the deaths of Masri and Zawi were accurate. However, a U.S. counterterrorism official said that reporting from the field was still "unclear" and that while "indications" had reached Washington that the two alleged Qaeda leaders were dead, there was still some room for doubt.

One reason why some U.S. officials remain cautious about the reporting from Iraq is that captures or killings of senior Qaeda leaders have sometimes been reported in the past, only to be discredited after the supposedly dead terrorist reappeared. One Qaeda leader who had featured in such inaccurate reporting in the past was the now (allegedly) newly dead Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Reports like this of his death in 2007 turned out to have been greatly exaggerated.

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