BAGHDAD (AP) — The most prominent figure in a U.S.-backed revolt of Sunni sheiks against al Qaeda in Iraq was killed in a bomb blast yesterday, 10 days after he met with President Bush.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hoped the death of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha would not stall the campaign to drive al Qaeda in Iraq from the vast province spreading west of Baghdad and to reconcile Sunnis with the Shi’ite-led national government.
It was the biggest blow to the Anbar tribal alliance since a suicide bomber killed four anti-al Qaeda sheiks as they met in a Baghdad hotel in June. Mr. Abu Risha himself had escaped a suicide attack in February.
But those attacks and others did not stop the campaign against al Qaeda, and tribesmen in Anbar province vowed yesterday not to be deterred in fighting the terrorist movement.
Mr. Abu Risha, head of the Anbar Awakening Council who met with Mr. Bush just 10 days earlier, died when a roadside bomb exploded near his home just west of Ramadi as he returned from his farm, police Col. Tareq Youssef said. Two bodyguards and the driver also were killed.
Moments later, a car bomb exploded nearby but caused no casualties. An Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said the second bomb was intended as a backup in case Mr. Abu Risha escaped the first blast.
The attack occurred one year after the goateed, charismatic, chain-smoking young sheik organized 25 Sunni Arab clans into an alliance against al Qaeda in Iraq, seeking to drive the terrorist movement from sanctuaries where it had flourished after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
No group claimed responsibility for the assassination, but it was widely assumed to have been carried out by al Qaeda, which already had killed four of Mr. Abu Risha’s brothers and six other relatives for working with the U.S. military.
U.S. officials credit Mr. Abu Risha and allied sheiks for a dramatic improvement in security in such Anbar flash points as Fallujah and Ramadi after years of American failure to subdue the extremists. U.S. officials now talk of using the Anbar model to organize tribal fighters elsewhere in Iraq.
Mr. Abu Risha’s allies, as well as U.S. and Iraqi officials, insisted the assassination would not deter them from fighting al Qaeda, and the tribal alliance appears to have gained enough momentum to survive the loss of a single figure, no matter how senior. Late yesterday, Mr. Abu Risha’s brother, Ahmed, was selected to replace him as head of the council.
Still, the loss of such a charismatic leader is bound to complicate efforts to recruit more tribal leaders in the war against the terrorist network. Two Pentagon officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter, said the assassination sent a chilling message about the consequences of cooperating with the Americans.
“This is a criminal act, and al Qaeda is behind it,” said Sheik Jubeir Rashid, a senior member of Mr. Abu Risha’s council. “We have to admit that it is a major blow to the council. But we are determined to strike back and continue our work. Such an attack was expected, but this will not deter us.”
Ali Hatem al-Sulaiman, deputy chief of the province’s biggest Sunni tribe, said that if “only one small boy remains alive in Anbar, we will not hand the province over to al Qaeda.”
Islamic extremist Web sites praised the killing in a flurry of postings, one of which called Mr. Abu Risha “one of the biggest pigs of the Crusaders,” meaning the Americans.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite who had been reluctant to support Mr. Abu Risha, expressed “great sorrow” over the killing but said he was confident “that this criminal act will strengthen the determination of Anbar people to wipe out the terrorists.”
During a visit on Sept. 3 to the al-Asad Air Base, Mr. Bush hailed the courage of Mr. Abu Risha and others “who have made a decision to reject violence and murder in return for moderation and peace.”
In his appearance before Congress this week to testify about the situation in Iraq, the top U.S. military commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, often cited the success of the forces organized by Mr. Abu Risha, and yesterday he called the leader’s killing tragic.
“It’s a terrible loss for Anbar province and all of Iraq,” Gen. Petraeus said in a statement released in Washington. “It shows how significant his importance was, and it shows al Qaeda in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said U.S. officials would “redouble our efforts” to work with local Iraqis to build support against those behind such killings.