Sunni leader allied with U.S. assassinated

Sheik was a symbol of U.S. effort to turn Iraq enemies into partners

September 14, 2007|By Tina Susman | Tina Susman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A Sunni tribal leader who was among the United States' high-profile allies in Iraq was killed in a bomb blast yesterday, an assassination that could undermine U.S. attempts to recruit former foes to stabilize the country.

Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha was killed 10 days after meeting with President Bush during Bush's one-day visit to Anbar province, in western Iraq. The sheik had become a symbol of the military's effort to turn one-time enemies into partners to oppose insurgents and militias. Police in the provincial capital, Ramadi, said a bomb planted outside Abu Risha's desert compound tore apart his vehicle, killing the sheik and at least two bodyguards.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion fell on radical Islamic groups loyal to al-Qaida in Iraq, which used Anbar as a base until sheiks led by Abu Risha began denying them safe harbor last year. A message posted on a Web site used by such groups applauded the attack. "Good-bye Abdul Sattar, and book a place for Bush whom you received in your filthy house," it said.

The killing came on the heels of Gen. David Petraeus' testimony before Congress this week trumpeting Anbar as a model of security that could serve as an example to other regions of Iraq. Based in part on Anbar's experience, Petraeus said he believes that the United States could begin reducing its military presence in Iraq soon.

The assassination appeared certain to raise questions about the ability of the United States to persuade tribal leaders in the rest of the country to follow Abu Risha's example. That strategy is considered crucial to providing the level of security needed to decrease U.S. troop levels.

"It's a kick in the backside to the American effort, no doubt about it," said retired Army Gen. William Nash, now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Nash said that while the assassination could harden the resolve of some Iraqis to expel insurgents, others might decide it is too dangerous to cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi forces. In either case, he said, the United States will face new pressure to protect those whom it tries to recruit.

"The United States owes the folks who have tried to work with it the resources necessary to protect themselves," Nash said.

Details of security around Abu Risha's home were not clear. Months ago, at the start of Abu Risha's dealings with U.S. forces, an American tank was positioned in front of the walled compound on the edge of Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad. Pentagon officials said U.S. forces no longer were providing protection for Abu Risha.

Maj. Muhammad Alwani of the Ramadi police said the blast occurred about 3:30 p.m., 150 feet from Abu Risha's home. "The vehicle was destroyed completely. Their bodies were torn to pieces," Alwani said.

Police said there was no question that the blast was aimed at Abu Risha. They declared a state of emergency in Anbar and a seven-day mourning period.

One of Abu Risha's relatives, who refused to be identified, suggested that someone from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government might have been involved in the attack.

Late yesterday, al-Maliki's office released a statement praising Abu Risha for his "heroic stand against terrorists" and saying that the attack "carries the fingerprint of al-Qaida."

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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