BAGHDAD - The Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq acknowledged in a statement released over the weekend that its two leaders were recently slain in a U.S. airstrike in northern Iraq, confirming reports by Iraqi and U.S. officials.

The statement said Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the Egyptian-born leader of the group, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, his Iraqi counterpart, were holding a meeting when a team of Iraqi and U.S. Special Forces soldiers descended on their safe house on the outskirts of Tikrit in the early hours of April 18. The airstrike was ordered when the approaching troops came under fire.

In the statement, issued by the umbrella organization Islamic State of Iraq, group leaders vowed to continue fighting the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

"The war is ongoing," the statement said, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group, which analyzes communications from extremist groups. "And the favorable outcome shall be for the pious."

U.S. military officials said the slaying of the organization's top leaders is a major setback for the group, which had struggled to keep a steady influx of foreign financing and fighters.

But U.S. military officials and analysts say al-Qaida in Iraq remains dangerous and will probably continue carrying out attacks.

"The group's ability to mount an insurgency capable of threatening the survival of the government of Iraq might be next to nothing," said Rita Katz, director of SITE. "But al-Qaida in Iraq can still survive as a potent member of al-Qaida's global network."

Also Sunday, the Sunni-backed political coalition that won the most votes during the March 7 parliamentary election expressed grave reservations about the recently ordered manual recount of ballots in Baghdad. A judicial panel ordered the recount at the request of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose coalition won the second-largest number of seats.

The Washington Post

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