Iraqi Prime Minister office/Getty Images
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki displays photographs of a man identified by the Iraqi government as al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Maliki announced the deaths of Baghdadi and another al-Qaida leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, on Monday.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki displays photographs of a man identified by the Iraqi government as al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Maliki announced the deaths of Baghdadi and another al-Qaida leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, on Monday. Iraqi Prime Minister office/Getty Images
This week, Iraqi and U.S. forces killed the two top leaders of the terrorist group al-Qaida in Iraq. Officials in both countries hailed the operation as a breakthrough against insurgent forces.
"Their deaths are potentially devastating blows to al-Qaida [in] Iraq," Vice President Joe Biden said when announcing the deaths of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
And four years ago, President George W. Bush talked about the operation that killed the previous leader of the group, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"Zarqawi's death is a severe blow to al-Qaida. It's a victory on the global war on terror," he said at the time.
But al-Qaida in Iraq might not be finished yet.
Paul Pillar, a former top official at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, says al-Qaida in Iraq has continued to grow in strength. The group was blamed for a recent string of car bombs in the Iraqi capital.
"There tends to be often an over-reaction to specific leaders being scoffed up," says Pillar. "The groups we're talking about have demonstrated a strong ability to replace their losses even at fairly certain senior ranks."
An Iraqi soldier combs through the site of a joint U.S-Iraqi raid that killed Baghdadi and Masri, about six miles southwest of Tikrit.
An Iraqi soldier combs through the site of a joint U.S-Iraqi raid that killed Baghdadi and Masri, about six miles southwest of Tikrit. Karim Kadim/AP
It's still not known whether the loss of their leaders will amount to a devastating blow. But U.S. officials are making another claim — that the Iraqi military was in the lead on this mission.
The top American officer in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, expressed this on MSNBC.
"What made it more important was the cooperation between U.S. forces, between the Iraqis, their intelligence collection, their ability to conduct this operation with our support. So, this is an indicator of their increased capability," he said.
So what, specifically, did the Iraqis do? While many details are unclear, officials say the Iraqis provided some key intelligence.
Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and now a defense analyst, says that's significant.
"When I was in Iraq in 2003, 2004, trying to do capture-kill missions aimed at senior Baathist leadership, we didn't have much success, in large part due to the fact that our intelligence was often so spotty," he says.
So, intelligence was one thing. There's a second key area: Iraqi forces, especially commando units who were part of the mission, are said to be more competent.
All of this is very different from just a few years ago.
The killing of Zarqawi in 2006 was almost exclusively an American operation. So, too, was the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Still, there was a big U.S. role in this week's nighttime operation. The target was a safe house in a dusty corner of western Iraq. One of the al-Qaida leaders was found in a hole nearby. Another blew himself up as U.S. and Iraqi forces moved in.
The Americans provided special operations forces, high-tech intelligence equipment, helicopters and missiles. A U.S. Army Ranger died in the operation when his helicopter crashed.
So the question of who actually led the operation is open to debate. But American officials prefer to let the Iraqis take the credit.
Pillar, the former CIA official, says that who took the lead is beside the point. The key issue is the future of al-Qaida in Iraq.
"It does appear that the Sunni insurgent threat, especially of the sort that has been identified with al-Qaida in Iraq, is waxing more than waning," he says.
That threat is on the rise, says Pillar, because the movement still has support among some Sunni Arabs, who feel they have little voice in the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
And that's a political problem, not one that can be solved by a military operation — no matter who's in the lead.