In what was at least a symbolic blow to President George W. Bush, a prominent Iraqi tribal sheikh and self-styled leader of the "Sunni Awakening" movement, which struggled against al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), was assassinated just hours before Bush was to make his latest appeal for public support for his Iraq strategy.
The bombing death of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, whose rallying of local tribes against AQI has been cited by top U.S. officials as a turning point in Washington’s efforts to pacify the Sunni-dominated al Anbar Province, came just 10 days after his high-profile meeting with Bush at a U.S. military base in Anbar.
The White House praised Abu Risha in a statement released shortly after news of his murder reached Washington. "His efforts, and those of his fellow tribal sheikhs, to take the fight to al-Qaida 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-Qaida from al Anbar Province," said Bush’s new spokeswoman, Dana Perino. Her Pentagon counterpart, Geoff Morrell, described Abu Risha as "a brave warrior" and expressed "our hope and belief that he has spawned a movement that will outlive him."
U.S. officials blamed the assassination on AQI. "It shows al-Qaida 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 [AQI] 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, called Petraeus’ 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 factionalized and divided community which little resembles the picture offered by the administration’s defenders," wrote Lynch, whose blog, www.abuaardvark.org is widely read, 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 or three brothers were reportedly also 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-Qaida 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 U.S. forces and even the Shiite-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 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. Last 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 two weeks ago, 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 U.S. assistance and betraying the Sunni cause.
More important are fears that Sunni cooperation with U.S. forces is simply a temporary marriage of convenience and that, contrary to Ajami’s and the Bush administration’s views, it does not signal any accommodation, or "bottom-up reconciliation," as some U.S. officials have described it, with the post-invasion, Shiite-dominated regime or the U.S. military occupation.
"The danger is that once they run al-Qaida 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 U.S. occupation and is using U.S. 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 Shiite regime, when in fact the Sunni community remains as unreconciled as ever.
As Lynch says: "Abu Risha’s murder demonstrates the strategic naiveté of [the administration’s] arguments."
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org/).