U.S. Confirms Al-Qaida Leaders Killed In Iraq

The U.S. military confirmed Monday that Iraqi security forces had killed the two top leaders of al Qaida in Iraq. Meanwhile, a review panel has ordered a recount of election results, raising the possibility of a change in the inconclusive results. Almost any change could exacerbate tensions in Iraq. And just having a recount ends any American hopes that a new government will be in place by the end of summer, when U.S. forces are due to withdraw.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We're following two stories out of Baghdad today. First, Iraqi and U.S. military officials say that they have killed the two most important al-Qaida leaders in Iraq, with a joint raid on a house near Tikrit. And second, an Iraqi court has ordered a recount of votes in Baghdad and the surrounding province. That casts the results of the election in doubt and threatens to further delay the seating of a new government.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE: The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said the deaths of the two men might be the most important achievement since the beginning of the insurgency in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki addressed the nation live on television, calling the news a good omen.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Maliki named the two men who have taken responsibility for many of the high-profile attacks in Baghdad over the past eight months. Abu Ayyub al-Masri is an Egyptian who, authorities say, took over al-Qaida's Iraq franchise in 2006, after a U.S. airstrike killed the previous leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The other name is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi who led a network of extremists inside the country.

Prime Minister AL-MALIKI: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Maliki said regarding the identity of the terrorists, we took pictures of them and the Americans helped us confirm who they are.

The Iraqi premier may have reason to be a bit defensive though: This is at least the second time in the past year he has claimed to have captured or killed Omar al-Baghdadi. But today, Maliki had something else to celebrate.

Prime Minister AL-MALIKI: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: The prime minister called the decision to recount the votes in Baghdad Province a victory for the independent judiciary in Iraq. But he's hoping that means a victory for his State of Law electoral bloc. Initial results put him two parliamentary seats behind his rival, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Maliki said he expects the recount will put him ahead. Needless to say, his opponents were not as pleased with the decision.

MAYSOON DAMALUJI (President, Iraqi Independent Women's Group): It's obviously a decision of a court of law, which has to be respected.

LAWRENCE: Maysoon Damaluji from Allawi's slate said her group and others would now insist on recounts in other areas of the country. She said Maliki had coerced the court.

Ms. DAMALUJI: We would like to think that our courts of law are independent. But we do also recognize pressures when we see them. Unfortunately, it seems that the State of Law wants to have the largest number of seats, whatever the price.

LAWRENCE: American and U.N. officials had endorsed the election as free and fair. But one Western diplomat despaired at the prospect of a hand recount of Baghdad's two million votes. It's like counting the grains in a bag of rice, he said, you'll never get the same number twice.

If the recount erases Allawi's lead, his mostly Sunni supporters may feel cut out of the process, which in the past has fueled violence. Equally, Maliki's Shiite supporters may not accept a recount that puts Allawi higher.

Either way, the damage of another delay is now done, adding weeks to a government formation process that was already expected to last through the summer. American and Iraqi officials fear an extended paralysis in Baghdad that may continue past September 1st when U.S. troop in Iraq will have cut their number by half.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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