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Mr Maliki said the men had been hiding in a hole in the ground

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and US officials say two leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq have been killed in a joint Iraqi-US operation.

Mr Maliki said on national TV that the Iraqi al-Qaeda leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who led an affiliate group, were dead.

US Vice-President Joe Biden said their deaths were “potentially devastating blows” to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Mr Maliki said both had been killed in Salaheddin province, west of Baghdad.

Iraqi TV showed pictures of both men before and after their deaths.

Jim Muir, BBC News, Baghdad
When the Americans killed the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006, it was described as a massive blow to the insurgency. Yet it raged on unabated.

Only a switch of tactics by the Americans the following year, and other developments, reduced it to its current low levels.

Assuming the announcement is correct, it has taken four years to track down and kill Zarqawi's successor, known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir or Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

Leaders are clearly important, and eliminating them can have an effect in compounding the decline or hampering the growth of an adversary.

But – as Zarqawi's death showed – it is not enough on its own.

However, the insurgency has been sharply curbed in the past two years. The death of the two leaders, if confirmed, could help accelerate the downward trend.

“The attack was carried out by ground forces which surrounded the house, and also through the use of missiles,” Mr Maliki said.

He said the house in Thar-Thar had been destroyed and the two bodies were found inside, in a hole in the ground in which they had been hiding.

“During the operation computers were seized with e-mails and messages to the two biggest terrorists, Osama bin Laden and [his deputy] Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Mr Maliki added.

Speaking in Washington, Mr Biden said the operation “demonstrates the improved security, strength and capacity of Iraqi security forces”.

In a statement, the commander of US forces in Iraq, Gen Raymond Odierno, said: “The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.”

The statement said Iraqi forces with US support had mounted a night-time raid on the al-Qaeda leaders' safe-house.

It said the men were killed “after engaging the security team” and that al-Masri's assistant along with the son of al-Baghdadi were also killed.

A US helicopter crashed during the attack, killing one US soldier, the statement said.

There have been several previous official reports that both militants had been captured or killed which have turned out to be untrue.

Umbrella group
Abu Ayyub al-Masri was also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.