An al-Qaida front group in Iraq has confirmed the killing of its two top leaders but vowed in a statement that its members were not cowed by their death and would continue to fight.
"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 statement comes a week after Iraqi and U.S. security forces raided a safe house near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown north of Baghdad, killing Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
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.
Their deaths were triumphantly announced last Monday by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called the killings a "potentially devastating blow" to 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 to kill 72 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 does not mention the Friday 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-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.
Also Sunday, an explosion in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil inside an iron factory killed five workers and wounded 15.
Police Chief Abdul-Khaliq Talaat said the cause of the explosion on the outskirts of the city of Irbil was not immediately known. But the owner, Ali Ibrahim, said the iron factory works with military scraps that might have included rockets.
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 and Lara Jakes contributed to this report.
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