BAGHDAD, April 19 (UPI) -- Two Iraqi al-Qaida leaders have been killed in a U.S. airstrike, U.S. and Iraqi leaders announced Monday.
The bodies of the two al-Qaida leaders were found in a ditch after the Saturday airstrike, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, issued a statement saying the death of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, whom officials believe led al-Qaida's Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, "is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency."
"There is still work to do, but this is a significant step forward in ridding Iraq (of) terrorists," Odierno said.
The Islamic State of Iraq is an umbrella group that includes al-Qaida in Iraq.
One U.S. soldier was killed in a helicopter crash during the operation, in which U.S. officials said Masri and Baghdadi "engaged the security team."
Iraqi troops took 16 men into custody following the operation, The Washington Post reported.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told reporters in Washington Iraqis developed the intelligence that led to the airstrike and he said the operation was evidence Iraqi security forces are growing stronger.
"The Iraqis led this operation," Biden said. "In short, the Iraqis have taken the lead."
Speaking on national television, Maliki displayed photos of the dead leaders and said the raid occurred in the past few days at a house in Salahaddin province.
"We have found a lot of documents and hand-written letters" implicating the men, the prime minister said.