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Top al-Qaida leaders killed in Iraq, U.S. says

BAGHDAD - The United States and Iraq claimed a major victory against al-Qaida on Monday, saying their forces killed the terror group's two top figures in this country in an air and ground assault on their safe house near Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the killings of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri at a news conference and showed photographs of their bloody corpses. Later, U.S. military officials confirmed the deaths, which Vice President Joe Biden called a "potentially devastating blow" to al-Qaida in Iraq.

The organization has proved 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 U.S. airstrike. Still, some analysts contend, the group was far stronger then and would be likely to have a harder time now replenishing its leadership and sticking to a timetable of attacks.

"The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency," Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in a statement.

Al-Qaida in Iraq has remained a dangerous force as the United States prepares to withdraw most of its troops by August.

Monday's announcement comes at a critical time for al-Maliki, who has staked his reputation on being the man who can restore stability to Iraq after years of bloodshed.

The prime minister 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.

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