Ten days after President George Bush clasped his hand as a symbol of America’s hopes in Iraq, the man who led the US-supported revolt of Sunni sheikhs against al-Qa’ida in Iraq was assassinated.
Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha and two of his bodyguards were killed either by a roadside bomb or by explosives placed in his car by a guard, near to his home in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, the Iraqi province held up by the American political and military leadership as a model for the rest of Iraq.
His killing is a serious blow to President Bush and the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, who have both portrayed the US success in Anbar, once the heart of the Sunni rebellion against US forces, as a sign that victory was attainable across Iraq.
On Monday General Petraeus told the US Congress that Anbar province was “a model of what happens when local leaders and citizens decide to oppose al-Qa’ida and reject its Taliban-like ideology”.
But yesterday’s assassination underlines that Iraqis in Anbar and elsewhere who closely ally themselves with the US are in danger of being killed. “It shows al-Qa’ida in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy,” General Petraeus said in reaction to the killing. But Abu Risha might equally have been killed by the many non al-Qa’ida insurgent groups in Anbar who saw him as betraying them.
The assassination comes at a particularly embarrassing juncture for President Bush, who was scheduled to address the American people on television last night to sell the claim made by General Petraeus that the military “surge” was proving successful in Iraq and citing the improved security situation in Anbar to prove it.
Abu Risha, 37, usually stayed inside a heavily fortified compound containing several houses where he lived with his extended family. A US tank guards the entrance to the compound, which is opposite the largest US base in Ramadi.
He spent yesterday morning meeting tribal sheikhs to discuss the future of Anbar. He also received long lines of petitioners as he drank small glasses of sweet tea and chain-smoked. He carried a pistol stuck in a holster strapped to his waist and dressed in dark flowing robes.
Surprisingly, he is said to have recently reduced the number of his bodyguards because of improved security situation in Anbar, although he ought to have known that as leader of the anti al-Qai’da Anbar Salvation Council he was bound to be a target for assassins.
Iraqi police in Ramadi suspect that the bomb that killed the sheikh was planted by one of the petitioners who came to see him. “The sheikh’s car was totally destroyed by the explosion. Abu Risha was killed,” said a Ramadi police officer, Ahmed Mahmoud al-Alwani. Giving a different account of the assassination, the Interior Ministry spokesman said that a roadside bomb killed Abu Risha. Soon afterwards a second car bomb blew up.
“The car bomb had been rigged just in case the roadside bomb missed his convoy,” said an Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj-Gen Abdul-Karim Khalaf.
He added that the Interior Ministry planned to build a statue to Abu Risha as a “martyr” at the site of the explosion or elsewhere. However, statues, as well as living politicians, often have a short life in Iraq.
Abu Risha’s death underlines the degree to which the White House and General Petraeus have cherry-picked evidence to prove that it is possible to turn the tide in Iraq. They have, for instance, given the impression that some Sunni tribal leaders turning against al-Qa’ida in Anbar and parts of Diyala and Baghdad is a turning point in the war.
In reality al-Qa’ida is only a small part of the insurgency, with its fighters numbering only 1,300 as against 103,000 in the other insurgent organisations according to one specialist on the insurgency. Al-Qa’ida has largely concentrated on horrific and cruel bomb attacks on Shia civilians and policemen and has targeted the US military only as secondary target.
The mass of the insurgents belong to groups that are nationalist and Islamic militants who have primarily fought the US occupation. They were never likely to sit back while the US declared victory in their main bastion in Anbar province.
There is no doubt that Abu Risha fulfilled a need and spoke for many Sunni who were hostile to and frightened by al-Qa’ida. Their hatred sprung less from the attacks on the Shia than al-Qa’ida setting up an umbrella organisation called the Islamic State of Iraq last year that sought to enforce total control in Sunni areas.
It tried to draft one young man from every Sunni family into its ranks, sought protection money and would kill Sunni who held insignificant government jobs collecting the garbage or driving trucks for the agriculture ministry as traitors.
The importance of the assassination of Abu Risha is that it once again underlines the difference between the bloody reality of Iraq as it is and the way it is presented by the US administration. He is one of a string of Iraqi leaders who have been killed in Iraq since the invasion of 2003 because they were seen as being too close to the US. These include the Shia religious leader Sayid Majid al-Khoei, murdered in Najaf in April 2003, and Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, killed by a suicide bomber the same year.
In practice the surge has by itself has done little to improve security, according to Iraqis, a majority of whom say security has got worse. The number of Iraqis fleeing their homes has actually gone up from 50,000 to 60,000 in recent months, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. Baghdad has become a largely Shia city with the Sunni pressed into smaller and smaller enclaves.
Cultivating an alliance with the Sunni tribes had been a long-term US policy since 2004 but finally caught fire because of al-Qa’ida overplayed their hand last year. It has the disadvantage that the US has, in effect, created a new Sunni tribal militia which takes orders from the US military and is well paid by it and does not owe allegiance to the Shia-Kurdish government in Baghdad. This is despite the fact that the US has denounced militias in Iraq and demanded they be dissolved.
The US success in Anbar was real but it was also overblown because the wholly Sunni province is not typical of the rest of Iraq. The strategy advocated by Washington exaggerated the importance of al-Qa’ida and seldom spoke of the other powerful groups who had not been driven out of Anbar.
Abu Risha had real support in Anbar, particularly in Ramadi where many people yesterday referred to him as “hero” and expressed sadness at his death.
But President Bush’s highly publicised visit to Anbar may well have been Abu Risha’s death knell. There are many Sunni who loathe al-Qa’ida, but very few who approve of the US occupation. By giving the impression that Abu Risha was one of America’s most important friends, Mr Bush ensured that some of the most dangerous men in the world would try to kill him.
The testimony by General Petraeus to Congress earlier this week has proved effective from the point of view of the White House in establishing the US commander in Iraq as a credible advocate of the administration’s military strategy.
But critics of General Petraeus have described him as “a military Paris Hilton” whose celebrity is not matched by his achievements. As commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul in 2003-4 was lauded for re-establishing Iraqi police units only for them to desert or join the insurgents who captured most of the city after the general left.
A model for Iraq?
General David Petraeus in his testimony to Congress:
“The most significant development in the past six months likely has been the emergence of tribes and local citizens rejecting al-Qa’ida and other extremists. This has, of course, been most visible in Anbar. A year ago the province was assessed as “lost” politically. Today, it is a model of what happens when local leaders and citizens decide to oppose al-Qa’ida and reject its Taliban-like ideology.”
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.