The most prominent figure in a revolt of Sunni sheiks against al Qaeda in Iraq was killed Thursday in an explosion near his home in Anbar province, Iraqi 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.
Abu Risha and two of his bodyguards were killed by a roadside bomb planted near the tribal leader's home in Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital, said Col. Tareq Youssef, supervisor of Anbar police.
No group claimed responsibility for the assassination but suspicion fell on al Qaeda in Iraq, which U.S. officials say has suffered devastating setbacks in Anbar thanks to Abu Risha and his fellow sheiks. It's unclear how his death would affect U.S. efforts to organize Sunnis against the terror network.
Abu Risha was among a group of tribal leaders who met President Bush earlier this month at al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Friday that Abu Risha's death was "a most unfortunate and tragic loss" which "demonstrates the lengths the enemies of Iraqi will go to to divide Iraq."
The chief spokesman for Gen. David Petraeus, America's top commander in Iraq, told
CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick
Thursday that the sheik's death was a "tragic loss both to the Anbar province and to Iraq in general."
"We would hope that the other leaders within the tribes in Anbar, and in Iraq would take up the flag, so to speak," Col. Steve Boylan told
Pentagon press secretary Goeff Morell, who met the slain sheik in Anbar during Defense Secretary Gates' recent trip, described Abu Risha's compelling personal story. "Many other sheiks left for Jordan and other countries... but Abu Risha stayed. Three of his brothers were killed by al Qaeda and he decided enough was enough - he was going to stand up."
"He was the driving force behind the awakening in Anbar," added Morell. "Despite the tragic loss, he ignited a movement that will outlive him."
Privately, two U.S. officials said earlier that his assassination would be a huge setback for U.S. efforts in Iraq, because it sends a message to others who are cooperating with coalition forces or thinking about cooperating against al Qaeda.
Abu Risha began cooperating with Coalition forces in 2006 and his decision sparked a sharp security turnaround in Anbar, reports McCormick, who filed a special report from Ramadi on the progress being made in January this year.
His most important role, says McCormick, was recruiting Sunnis to the local security forces, in particular the police, which had been all but wiped out.
But his decision to help wasn't based solely on his support of the Americans, but rather attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq against Sunnis and their leaders in Anbar. While enlisting other tribal leaders to join him, he told them the sooner security progress was made in Anbar, the sooner the Americans would leave.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Thursday that U.S. forces did provide personal security for Abu Risha, at one point even parking an M-1 tank outside his house. While U.S forces did train his security detail, Whitman said he currently was being protected by his own people.
His recent meeting with President Bush put him in the spotlight again, reports McCormick, and likely made him an attractive target for al Qaeda in Iraq.
A Ramadi police officer said Abu Risha had received a group of poor people at his home earlier in the day, as a gesture of charity marking the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said authorities believed the bomb was planted by one of the guests.
A senior member of Abu Risha's group, Sheik Jubeir Rashid, called the assassination a "criminal act" and blamed al Qaeda.
"It is a major blow to the council, but we are determined to strike back and continue our work," Rashid said. "Such an attack was expected, but it will not deter us."
After the bombing, police announced a state of emergency in Ramadi and set up additional checkpoints throughout the city, Rashid said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said that after the first blast which 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.
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.
Anbar police were investigating the attack, and the Interior Ministry would send a committee to assist, Khalaf added.
It was not the first time Abu Risha and his colleagues have been targeted.
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 Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack.
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