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U.S. ally's death may hurt Anbar strategy

September 14, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The slaying of a Sunni Arab tribal leader who was one of the United States' highest-profile allies in Anbar province drew a pledge from President Bush on Thursday to continue support to an area he called "a good example of how our strategy is working" in Iraq.

Abdul Sattar Rishawi was killed 10 days after he met with Bush during the American leader's one-day visit to Anbar, in western Iraq. The sheik had become a symbol of the U.S. military's effort to turn enemies into partners against insurgents and militias.

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, told Congress this week that the strategy in Anbar had paid off with a decrease in violence.

"Anbar province is a good example of how our strategy is working," Bush said, in a speech that mentioned the province 11 times. But the president added that insurgents remained "active and deadly."

"Earlier today, one of the brave tribal sheiks who helped lead the revolt against Al Qaeda was murdered," Bush said. "In response, a fellow Sunni leader declared: 'We are determined to strike back and continue our work.' And as they do, they can count on the continued support of the United States."

Police in the Anbar provincial capital, Ramadi, said a bomb planted outside Rishawi's sprawling desert compound tore apart his vehicle, killing him and at least two bodyguards.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion fell on radical Islamic groups loyal to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which used Anbar as a base until sheiks led by Rishawi last year turned against them and began denying them refuge. A message posted on a website 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. "Did he help you this time? Could he prevent the Islamic State soldiers from reaching you?"

The killing came on the heels of Petraeus' testimony trumpeting Anbar as a model of security that could serve as an example to other Iraqi regions. Based in part on the experience in Anbar, Petraeus said he believed the United States could begin a gradual reduction of its military presence in Iraq later this month.

The killing appeared certain to adversely affect the United States' efforts to persuade tribal leaders elsewhere to follow Rishawi's example. That strategy is considered key 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 L. Nash, now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Nash said that the assassination could harden the resolve of some Iraqis to expel insurgents, but others might decide it was 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.

It was not clear what security was in place around Rishawi's home on the edge of Ramadi, about 60 miles west of Baghdad. Months ago, at the start of Rishawi's dealings with U.S. forces, an American tank had been positioned in front of the compound, but Pentagon officials in Washington said U.S. forces no longer were providing him protection.

Within the compound walls, there were several houses for members of Rishawi's family, guards and loyalists. He kept an enclosure for animals, including a gazelle, and held court inside a large meeting hall, watched by young men with assault rifles.

Rishawi, a slim man with a black goatee who wore flowing robes and a large diamond ring, also kept a ranch with camels and horses near his home. Maj. Mohammed Alwani of the Ramadi police said Rishawi was headed to the ranch when the blast struck at about 3:30 p.m., about 150 feet from his home. "The vehicle was destroyed completely. Their bodies were torn to pieces," Alwani said.

Police said there was no question that Rishawi, who was also known as Abu Risha, the name of his tribe, was the target. Officials declared a state of emergency in Anbar and a seven-day mourning period.

Reactions from some quarters indicated that the killing could derail reconciliation efforts in Anbar.

One of Rishawi's relatives, who refused to be identified, suggested that someone from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government might have been involved in the attack. Maliki has been reluctant to embrace the U.S. policy of forging alliances with former Sunni insurgents and their supporters, for fear they may turn their guns on his Shiite-dominated government.

Late Thursday, Maliki's office released a statement praising Rishawi for his "heroic stand against terrorists" and saying the attack "carries the fingerprint of Al Qaeda."

Ali Hatami, a member of the Anbar Salvation Council, which Rishawi helped form, told Al Arabiya TV: "We will counter this crime soon, and it will be tough this time."

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