The most prominent figure in a U.S.-backed revolt of Sunni sheiks against al-Qaida in Iraq was killed today by a bomb planted near his home in Anbar province, 10 days after he met with President Bush, police and tribal leaders said.
Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha was leader of the Anbar Salvation Council, also known as the Anbar Awakening &
an alliance of clans backing the Iraqi government and U.S. forces.
The death of the charismatic young sheik dealt a blow to American efforts to recruit tribal leaders to fight the terror network.
The White House, preparing for Bush's Iraq speech to the nation tonight, called his death an "unfortunate and outrageous act," but said it was not a setback because other sheiks have said the killing would not deter them from working with the United States against al-Qaida. It also said it believed al-Qaida in Iraq was responsible.
Abu Risha and two of his bodyguards were killed by a roadside bomb planted near the tribal leader's home in the provincial capital of Ramadi, said Col. Tareq Youssef, supervisor of Anbar police.
No group claimed responsibility for the assassination but suspicion fell on al-Qaida in Iraq, which U.S. officials say has suffered devastating setbacks in Anbar thanks to Abu Risha and his fellow sheiks.
"This is a tragic loss," said Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in a statement released in Washington by his spokesman. "It's a terrible loss for Anbar province and all of Iraq. It shows how significant his importance was and it shows al-Qaida in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy. He was an organizing force that did help organize alliances and did help keep the various tribes together."
Petraeus went before Congress this week to testify about progress in Iraq, including the recent success in Anbar.
During a visit Sept. — to al-Asad Air Base, Bush hailed the courage of Abu Risha and others "who have made a decision to reject violence and murder in return for moderation and peace."
Today, Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said Abu Risha "was one of the first to come forward to want to work with the United States to repel al-Qaida."
"Remember, al-Qaida was killing some of the sheiks' children and, in one instance, severed several heads from young children and put them in a cooler to deliver to the sheiks," Perino said. "This is the type of enemy that we're dealing with."
She said that while the death was not a setback to the U.S. efforts in Anbar, U.S. officials would "have to redouble our efforts to work with the local populations to get the support they need to prevent other such murders."
"There has been a complete shift in attitude over the past year or so and we have to capitalize on that," Perino said.
But two Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter, said the assassination could be a huge setback because it sends a chilling message about the consequences of cooperating with the U.S.
It was not the first time that Abu Risha has been targeted. A suicide bomber tried and failed to kill him on Feb. 19. That same day, gunmen ambushed a minivan on the main highway from Baghdad to Anbar and killed all 13 passengers who were accused of opposing the largely Sunni al-Qaida in Iraq.
In June, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby of Baghdad's Mansour Hotel during a meeting of U.S.-linked Sunni tribal leaders, killing 13 people and wounding 27. Among those killed was the former governor of Anbar and sheik of the al-Bu Nimir tribe, Fassal al-Guood &
a key ally of Abu Risha. A day later, al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack.
Abu Risha had recently begun traveling with fewer bodyguards as the security situation improved in Anbar.
Within two hours of his death, Islamic extremist Web sites praised his killing. One called him "one of the biggest pigs of the Crusaders," in an apparent reference to U.S. forces in Iraq. Abu Risha would spend the holy month of Ramadan "in the pits of hell," another posting said.
Many Ramadi residents reacted with shock and sadness, calling Abu Risha a "hero" who helped pacify their city.
"We were able to reopen our shops and send our children back to school," said Alaa Abid, who owns an auto parts store in Ramadi. "Now we're afraid that the black days of al-Qaida will return to our city."
A senior member of Abu Risha's group, Sheik Jubeir Rashid, called the assassination a "criminal act" by al-Qaida, and said some of Abu Risha's security guards were being questioned.
"It is a major blow to the council, but we are determined to strike back and continue our work," he said. "Such an attack was expected, but it will not deter us."
Abu Risha, who was 36 or 37, lived within the walls of a massive compound that housed several villas that were home to him and his extended family. The compound was guarded by a tank, and was across the street from the largest U.S. military base in Ramadi. Within the walls were camels, other animals and palm trees, which he spent time showing to visitors.
He spent days meeting with tribal sheiks, discussing the fate of Anbar and al-Qaida. He was constantly busy, with lines of people waiting to speak to him, and took endless calls on his cell phone.
He smoked profusely and drank endless glasses of sweet tea. He carried a pistol, usually stuck in a holster strapped around his waist, and dressed in traditional flowing robes and headdresses.
Abu Risha was part of a group of younger sheiks whose power grew when their elders fled Anbar after other, more senior sheiks were assassinated.
He harbored a personal grudge against al-Qaida, who he said had killed several of his close relatives. He knew the group would keep trying to kill him, but that did not appear to bother him.
Rashid said the fatal bombing took place at 3:30 p.m. as Abu Risha was returning home.
A Ramadi police officer said Abu Risha had received a group of poor people at his home earlier in the day, a charitable gesture to mark the beginning of Ramadan. The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said authorities believed the bomb was planted by one of the visitors.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said that after the first blast that killed Abu Risha, a car bomb exploded nearby.
"The car bomb had been rigged just in case the roadside bomb missed his convoy," Khalaf said. There were no casualties from the car bomb, he added.
After the bombing, police announced a state of emergency in Ramadi and set up additional checkpoints throughout the city, Rashid said. Another colleague of Abu Risha, Hamid al-Hayis, said a seven-day mourning period would be observed.
Anbar police were investigating the attack, and the Interior Ministry would send a committee to assist, Khalaf added.
The Interior Ministry swiftly ordered plans for a monument built to honor Abu Risha as a "martyr," Khalaf said. It would be build either at the explosion site, or at the center of Ramadi, he said.
In other violence today, police said six people were killed and 18 wounded when a bomb under a parked car exploded near the Sadr City section of Baghdad. The bomb was apparently aimed at a U.S. convoy but missed its target, police said.
In eastern Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed one person and injured two others, police also said.
Near Samarra, 60 miles north of the Iraqi capital, authorities said about 60 gunmen attacked a police station and ignited clashes with residents and police &
leaving four assailants dead and two policemen wounded.
A U.S. general, meanwhile, said a fatal attack against the headquarters garrison of the American military in Iraq was carried out using a 240 mm rocket &
a type of weapon that he claimed Iran provided to Shiite extremists.
One person was killed and 11 were wounded in the attack Tuesday against Camp Victory, which includes the headquarters of Multinational Forces-Iraq.
Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said the rocket was launched from a populated area in the Rasheed district of west Baghdad, which he said was infiltrated by breakaway factions of the Mahdi Army militia of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Displaying a twisted piece of shrapnel from the attack, Bergner said military experts had so far determined that its markings and manufacture were "consistent with" Iranian produced munitions.
"Can I hold up a piece of fragment today that has a specific marking on it that traces this back to Iranian making?" he said. "At this moment I can't do that, but explosive experts &
as I said &
are still analyzing all the different fragments that they have gathered."
Associated Press writers David Rising in Baghdad and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this story.
Bomb kills top Sunni sheik who met with Bush cooperated with U.S. against al-Qaida in Iraq