Bomb Kills a Key Sunni Ally of U.S.

Abu Risha
President Bush shakes hands with Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha during a meeting with tribal leaders in Anbar province Sept. 3, 2007. (Charles Dharapak - AP)

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By Joshua Partlow, Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 14, 2007

BAGHDAD, Sept. 13 -- A charismatic tribal leader who allied himself with the United States and rallied fractious Sunni groups against extremists who claim links to al-Qaeda was killed Thursday afternoon when a bomb exploded outside his house in Anbar province.

The efforts of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha became the centerpiece of the Bush administration's campaign to prove its troop buildup in Iraq has been a success. President Bush, during a visit to Anbar last week, met with Abu Risha and said the province suggested "what the future of Iraq can look like."

Abu Risha was regarded by Americans as a rare leader willing to stand defiantly alongside U.S. forces, while able to both cajole and intimidate his fellow Sunnis into agreement.

His Anbar Salvation Council organized tribal rivals into local defense forces united against the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, making the province less violent and encouraging U.S. commanders to promote similar efforts in other parts of the country.

At a time when Iraqi leaders have been all but unable to achieve political progress, U.S. officials saw the council as a sign that Sunnis could be persuaded to work with the government.

Abu Risha's death "is a tragic loss," said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "It's a terrible loss for Anbar province and all of Iraq. It shows how significant his importance was, and it shows al-Qaeda in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy."

Bush, in an address to the nation Thursday night, noted the death of "one of the brave tribal sheiks who helped lead the revolt" against al-Qaeda in Iraq and said his fellow Sunni leaders fighting the extremists "can count on the continued support of the United States."

The vast western desert of Anbar province stretches from Baghdad to the Jordanian border and has been a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda in Iraq. The predominantly Sunni population makes it unique in Iraq, a factor that some believe makes its tribal alliance difficult to replicate elsewhere.

Abu Risha's public profile made him an obvious target. He had survived assassination attempts before Thursday's attack, which came on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and one day shy of the first anniversary of the council.

The explosion occurred about 3 p.m., apparently from a buried bomb, while Abu Risha was talking on his cellphone behind his house in the provincial capital, Ramadi, according to U.S. military officials and tribal colleagues. Two bodyguards and another man were also killed, police said. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said a car bomb also detonated in the area.

Abu Risha, who was in his mid-30s, had amassed many enemies. He was called a warlord and a highway bandit, an oil smuggler and an opportunist, who sold out the Sunni resistance for American military friendship. He often dismissed Iraq's government as dysfunctional and regularly demanded more money and guns from anyone who would listen.

But in the first hours after Abu Risha's death, his legacy seemed to unite Iraqi leaders across the sectarian spectrum.


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