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.
"I can honestly say he was the first one who lit the candle in the fight against al-Qaeda in Anbar province," said Maj. Gen. Muhsen Abdul Hasan Lazem, a top Interior Ministry official who oversees border forces in Iraq. "Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a martyr, proved to everyone that there is nothing more valuable than the homeland, and nothing is better than fighting terrorism."
Abu Risha's fellow tribal leaders, along with U.S. military officials, vowed to protect the Anbar Salvation Council and carry on his mission, and said they expected his death would galvanize further support. Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, a leader of the Dulaim confederation, the largest tribal organization in Anbar, and a rival of Abu Risha's, lamented the loss. "His death has squeezed our heart and made us terribly angry."
"Now, I swear to God, if we will hear anyone is with al-Qaeda, even if he is still inside his mother's womb, we will kill him," Suleiman said. "The man was one of the swords of the council in the province. If one sword falls, other swords will rise."
Iraqi officials imposed a state of emergency in Anbar following the assassination. Under tight security, tribal leaders met and appointed Abu Risha's elder brother, Ahmed, to take the helm of the Anbar Salvation Council.
"I am hopeful that what has been started by Abu Risha and his colleagues will not be reversed," said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. "This crime should make us more determined to support the communities in Anbar and elsewhere against the terrorists."
Resplendent in his gold-trimmed robes, white headdress and Gucci sunglasses, Abu Risha cut a striking figure. He had penetrating brown eyes, a pearl-plated pistol at his side and the assured demeanor of a man who feared no rival in his sand-blown kingdom. Raised the son of a wealthy merchant, he spent much of the early years of the war in the shipping business in Dubai and Amman, Jordan.
When he returned to Iraq he put himself at great personal risk to partner with American soldiers but relished the relationship. When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) visited Ramadi this year, one U.S. soldier recalled, Abu Risha told the congressional delegation: "Today we dine in a Marine base. When you return, I wish to have you as guests in my house. And in five years, I hope we will eat at McDonald's."
"The guy looked like he had some steel in his spine," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who sat next to Abu Risha a week ago at an economic forum in Ramadi.
For much of the war, there was no deadlier place than Anbar province. The tide quietly began to turn in late 2005 in Qaim, a town near the Syrian border, when U.S. troops first sensed a willingness among the tribes to fight alongside them, not against them, according to U.S. military officials.
At the time, virtually all Sunni tribes faced a murderous campaign against anyone who challenged the rising authority of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a predominantly Iraqi group whose links to Osama bin Laden's organization remain unclear. Islamic extremists targeted police, the Iraqi army, religious and tribal leaders and communication systems to isolate people from one another.
"They rendered people virtually naked under their influence," Marine Brig. Gen. John Allen said in an interview. "The tribes chafed under the pressure of murder and intimidation."
In early 2006, a tribal group emerged to oppose al-Qaeda in Iraq, but six of its 11 sheiks were quickly killed, ending that effort. That summer Abu Risha began to talk with U.S. military leaders in Ramadi about bringing his kinsmen and neighbors to the fight. Abu Risha's motivation stemmed in part from revenge: His father was murdered in 2004 by al-Qaeda in Iraq, and three of his brothers have been killed.
The result of his efforts was the council, created Sept. 14, 2006, which eventually brought together 42 tribes. While the group was strained by internal divisions and rivalries, it succeeded in recruiting legions of young men into the Iraqi security forces to guard their cities and villages.
"It began an avalanche of Iraqis joining the police and the army in the latter part of 2006, and it really took off in February and March 2007," Allen said. "We went from 4,500 police a year ago to 21,000 police now."
The Anbar council recently began winning more support from the central government. On Sept. 6, several top Iraqi officials traveled to Anbar to pledge to work across the sectarian divide. They delivered $70 million for rapid economic reconstruction and $50 million in compensation for destroyed housing. Hiring approval was granted for 6,000 new civilian jobs. The officials promised to reopen an oil refinery, accelerate an electricity plant and create two free-trade zones on Anbar's borders with Jordan and Syria.
"Anbar was a lost cause a year ago. The fact that the senior leadership went to Anbar, talked about more money and met with the tribal sheiks, which was broadcast on TV, is a major success story," said Salih, the deputy prime minister. However, he added: "It's still at its infancy and it needs to be nurtured."
The steep drop in violence in Anbar has been unmatched anywhere else in Iraq, but the turnaround has become the model for Sunni enclaves in Diyala province, western Baghdad and south of the capital. At the same time, the recruitment of Sunni residents, many of them former insurgents hostile to the Iraqi security forces, has alarmed some Shiite officials in the central government.
At the forefront of this controversial movement, Abu Risha was a marked man. In a video recently discovered by the U.S. military after a battle in Ramadi, insurgents threatened Abu Risha and called him the "dog of Anbar." During a January meeting at his residence -- a compound also populated by camels and sheep, and across the street from a U.S. military base -- he barely paused his sermon of success when a rocket slammed down outside the gate.
"We had talked to Abu Risha extensively about being careful in light of the many threats against his life," said Col. John Charlton, the U.S. commander in Ramadi. "He had recently obtained two armored cars and had a very large security detail. Unfortunately, he was not in one of these cars when the attack occurred."
The Interior Ministry dispatched a National Police brigade to Anbar province as reinforcements in case of an outbreak of further violence, said Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman. A delegation from the ministry planned to travel to Anbar to investigate the killing.
"And we will be building a great statue for Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha at the entrance of Anbar province, so it will be a witness to his great accomplishments for the people of Iraq," Khalaf said.
Tyson and Wright reported from Washington. Staff writer Megan Greenwell and special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.