In what was at least a symbolic blow to George W. Bush, a prominent Iraqi tribal sheikh and self-styled leader of the "Sunni Awakening" movement against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was assassinated just hours before the US president was to make his latest appeal for public support for his Iraq strategy.
The death in an apparent bombing outside his home of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, whose rallying of local tribes against AQI has been cited by top US officials as a turning point in Washington’s efforts to pacify Sunni-dominated Anbar province, also came just 10 days after his high-profile meeting with Bush at a US military base near Ramallah.
The White House praised Abu Risha, who claimed to be 36 years old, in a statement released shortly after news of his murder reached here. "His efforts, and those of his fellow tribal sheikhs, to take the fight to al-Qaeda and bring peace and security to Anbar and other regions of Iraq exemplify the courage and determination of the Iraqi people," it said.
"This is a sheikh who was one of the first to come forward to want to work with the United States to repel al-Qaeda from al-Anbar province," said Bush’s new spokeswoman, Dana Perino, while her Pentagon counterpart, Geoff Morrell, described Abu Risha as "a brave warrior" and expressed "our hope and belief that the has spawned a movement that will outlive him."
US officials blamed the assassination on AQI. "It shows al-Qaeda in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy," said Gen. David Petraeus, Washington’s top commander in Iraq who, in testimony before Congress and numerous interviews here this week, stressed that the Sunni Awakening was the most positive development in Iraq in the past year.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Petraeus also called Abu Risha "a very important, unifying figure and a really inspirational leader… [who helped] forge alliances and… keep different tribes up and down the Euphrates River valley together."
But independent experts noted that the sheikh had made many enemies among the Sunni leadership in Anbar.
"Although al-Qaeda in Iraq is the leading suspect in this assassination," said Wayne White, a former senior State Department intelligence analyst on the Middle East, "Iraq’s diverse Sunni Arab community is rife with various tribal and other conflicts, rivalries and score-settling dating back many decades."
Marc Lynch, an expert on Arab media and the Sunni politics at George Washington University here, called Petraeus’s remarks "a leap to judgment emblematic of all which is wrong with America’s current views of the Sunnis of Iraq."
"In reality, there are a plethora of likely suspects, reflecting the reality of an intensely factionalised and divided community which little resembles the picture offered by the administration’s defenders," Lynch, whose blog, www.abuaardvark.org is widely read here, wrote in The American Prospect Online.
"Leaders of other tribes deeply resented Abu Risha’s prominence. Leaders of the major insurgency factions had for weeks been warning against allowing people such as Abu Risha to illegitimately reap the fruits of their jihad against the occupation," he noted.
Abu Risha, whose father and two three brothers were reportedly killed by AQI, first came to prominence late last year as a leader of the "Anbar Salvation Council," a group that was founded by various sheikhs last September to fight AQI’s efforts to impose an "Islamic State of Iraq" in the province.
"Al-Qaeda made many enemies with its grandiose rhetoric, attacks on local political figures, attempts to enforce Islamic morality, and decisions to muscle in on tribal smuggling routes," according to Lynch, who has long stressed the tension within the Sunni insurgency between Sunni factions associated with AQI and its Islamist ideology and those that were more nationalist in orientation.
The much larger, nationalist factions turned against AQI, with the result that the group and its allies have suffered major political and military setbacks in Anbar, particularly in Abu Risha’s hometown of Ramadi, where violence has fallen sharply in recent months.
Some of the nationalist factions, like Abu Risha’s, have solicited and received aid and funding from US forces and even the Shia-dominated central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and, in return, have enrolled thousands of tribal militia in the police. Others, however, have refused to accept such assistance and have kept their distance from both Abu Risha and his movement, even while they actively fought AQI and its allies.
Last April, Abu Risha announced the creation of a new political party, called Iraq Awakening, a movement that has been cited repeatedly by Petraeus, administration officials and their hawkish supporters in the media as the most encouraging development in Iraq this year and one that Petraeus has been trying with some success to replicate in other Sunni-dominated areas in the country and even in Baghdad itself.
With his moustache, elegant goatee and aristocratic bearing, Abu Risha quickly became a fixture in Pentagon-escorted Congressional and media tours of Anbar. Earlier this week, neoconservative pundit and Johns Hopkins University Professor Fouad Ajami described him in a lengthy Wall Street Journal column as "the dashing tribal leader who has emerged as the face of the new Sunni accommodation with American power."
It was not surprising then, that, at Bush’s meeting with tribal sheikhs during his lightning visit to the region last week, Abu Risha was seated right next to him, and photographs of the two shaking hands and consulting together appeared in dozens of Arab newspapers.
But Washington’s support for Abu Risha and other former Sunni insurgents-turned-allies has been seen as something of a devil’s bargain by many analysts. Abu Risha himself was largely regarded as a high-living opportunist who, in recent months, had been accused by other Sunni leaders of embezzling millions of dollars in US assistance and betraying the Sunni cause.
More important are fears that Sunni cooperation with US forces is simply a temporary marriage of convenience and that, contrary to the Ajami’s and the administration’s views, it does not signal any accommodation, or "bottom-up reconciliation," as some US officials have described it, with the post-invasion, Shia-dominated regime or the US military occupation.
"The danger is that once they run al-Qaeda out, they may turn on you, the Iraqi government, or both," Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told the Christian Science Monitor in July.
Indeed, Lynch sees the nationalist Sunni insurgency as believing it has already defeated the US occupation and is using US support to prepare for the civil war that they believe will follow Washington’s withdrawal.
In his view, the administration has deluded itself into thinking that Abu Risha represented Sunnis’ willingness to engage in "bottom-up reconciliation" with the Shia regime when in fact, the Sunni community remains as unreconciled as ever.
"Abu Risha’s murder demonstrates the strategic naivete of [the administration’s] arguments," according to Lynch.
(Inter Press Service)
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