BAGHDAD – BAGHDAD (AP) — An al-Qaida front group in Iraq on Sunday confirmed the killing of its two top leaders but vowed to keep up the fight despite claims by U.S. and Iraqi officials that the deaths could be a devastating blow to the terror network.
The defiance came in a statement released a week after the group's leaders — Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri — were killed in a raid by Iraqi and U.S. security forces on their safe house near Tikrit, north of Baghdad.
"After a long journey filled with sacrifices and fighting falsehood and its representatives, two knights have dismounted to join the group of martyrs," the statement said. "We announce that the Muslim nation has lost two of the leaders of jihad, and two of its men, who are only known as heroes on the path of jihad."
The four-page statement by the Islamic State of Iraq was posted on a militant website early Sunday.
It concluded: "The war is still ongoing, and the favorable outcome will be for the pious."
The Islamic State of Iraq is an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi was its self-described leader and was so elusive that at times U.S. officials questioned whether he was a real person or merely a composite of a terrorist to give an Iraqi face to an organization led primarily by foreigners.
Al-Masri, a weapons expert who was trained in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, was the shadowy national leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.
But four days later, officials believe al-Qaida struck back, bombing mosques, shops and the office of an influential Shiite cleric, killing 72 people in Iraq's bloodiest day of the year so far. Homes of police also were bombed. Al-Maliki said the insurgents were fighting back after the deaths of their two leaders.
The new statement did not mention Friday's bombings, and no group has claimed responsibility for them yet. But the statement signals that al-Qaida will remain a threat to Iraq even without its top two leaders, and urges its members and supporters to stay the course.
"Commit to what those two leaders stood for," the statement says. "Transform the blood of those two leaders into light and fire — a light which will illuminate the path before you and facilitate your ability of speech, and a fire against the enemies of the creed and the religion."
Al-Qaida in Iraq has proven 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, it is widely believed the group was far stronger then and would likely have a harder time now replenishing its leadership and sticking to a timetable of attacks.
Al-Maliki has seized on the militants' killings to show he can restore stability to Iraq after years of bloodshed. Following his political coalition's second-place finish in the March 7 parliamentary elections, al-Maliki 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.
Meanwhile, the police chief in Hawija, 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Baghdad, said troops raided the nearby town of al-Safra and arrested Burhan Mahmoud Mohammed, a local leader of the Islamic State of Iraq.
Col. Fatah al-Khafaji told The Associated Press that troops acted on intelligence but did not indicate exactly where the information came from. Iraqi officials have said the investigation into al-Baghdadi and al-Masri, especially the arrest in March of a senior al-Qaida official, has also led them to a number of other leaders associated with the insurgency.
In Baghdad, a so-called sticky bomb attached to the underside of a civilian's car exploded, killing the driver and wounding six passers-by, according to a police officer and a medic at the nearby al-Yarmouk hospital, where the victims were taken. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Also Sunday, an explosion at an iron factory in the northern city of Irbil killed five workers, including two Indians, two Arabs, a Kurd, and wounded 15. Workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other Asian nations have flocked to the Kurdish region in recent years as the economy there has grown.
Police Chief Abdul-Khaliq Talaat said the cause of the explosion was not immediately known.
Irbil is located in Iraq's Kurdish-controlled north about 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
An Irbil hospital worker confirmed the deaths.
Associated Press writers Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, and Lara Jakes in Baghdad contributed to this report.