/ 14 September 2007

Iraq tribal leader who fought al-Qaeda killed

A Sunni Arab tribal leader instrumental in driving al-Qaeda out of Iraq’s Anbar province was killed by a bomb on Thursday, hours before United States President George Bush endorsed limited US troop cuts in Iraq.

Abdul Sattar Abu Risha died in an attack on his car near his home in Ramadi, capital of Anbar. He led an alliance of Sunni Arab tribes called the Anbar Salvation Council that joined forces with US troops to push al-Qaeda from much of the western area.

Abu Risha was killed less than two weeks after he and other tribal leaders met Bush during a highly symbolic trip to Anbar on September 3, where Bush declared that improved security in the desert province was an example of what could happen elsewhere in Iraq.

The Bush administration has touted security improvements in Anbar as one of the biggest recent success stories in Iraq.

Iraq’s government and the White House condemned the attack on Abu Risha.

Commenting on Abu Risha’s killing in a televised speech on the Iraq war, Bush said, ”In Anbar, the enemy remains active and deadly.” He pledged US support for local Sunni leaders’ efforts to fight back against al-Qaeda.

Bush, seeking to rally support amid growing Democratic opposition to his Iraq strategy, told Americans he accepted a proposal by the top US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, to gradually remove five of 20 military brigades now in the country. A brigade consists of about 4 000 soldiers.

”Because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home,” Bush said after Petraeus delivered two days of congressional testimony that highlighted deep partisan divisions over the war, with some Democrats demanding radical troop cuts now.

Bush also said it would be possible to withdraw 5 700 troops from Iraq by December.

The partial drawdown approved by Bush would effectively reduce troop levels from the current 169 000 to about the same force the United States had in Iraq before the president ordered a build-up in January.

The reduction would not be as fast or as large as Democrats in Congress have demanded, but could buy time for the president to pursue the war by undermining a push for a wider withdrawal.

Bush said the size of the troop cuts would depend on continued progress in Iraq and noted the Iraqi government ”has not met its own legislative benchmarks”.

But he added the US would require a major troop presence in Iraq for years to come.

The Democratic leader of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said even before Bush spoke that he was announcing ”a stay-the-course strategy that puts us on a path for 10 years of war in Iraq”.

Roadside bomb

Police sources said Abu Risha was killed by a roadside bomb that targeted his armor-plated car, discounting earlier suggestions a bomb had been planted in the vehicle.

Three bodyguards and an aide to Abu Risha were also killed in the attack on the day Iraq’s Sunni Muslims marked the start of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

”The sheikh’s car was totally destroyed by the explosion. Abu Risha was killed,” Ramadi police officer Ahmed Mahmoud al-Alwani told Reuters.

Residents said a state of emergency had been declared in Ramadi and that American and Iraqi troops had poured into the streets in a heavy show of force.

”Abu Risha played a prominent role in confronting the extremists who tried to hijack the province of Anbar and set up an oppressive and backward entity in the land of Iraq,” said a statement from the prime minister’s office.

Abu Risha, who was believed to be in his early 40s, set up the Anbar Salvation Council last year to fight al-Qaeda, an effort held up by US leaders as one of the biggest success stories in improving security.

His brother, Ahmed Abu Risha, would take over as head of the council, a source in the body said.

Bush’s trip last week to Anbar would have been unthinkable just months ago when it was the most dangerous province in Iraq for US troops and the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency.

”It was once written off as lost. It is now one of the safest places in Iraq,” Bush had said.

Al-Qaeda once controlled large swaths of Anbar but it angered local tribal leaders with its indiscriminate killing of civilians and harsh interpretation of Islam.

Abu Risha was instrumental in getting young men to start joining local police forces, a development that has sharply reduced levels of violence and forced many al-Qaeda fighters to flee to other provinces. – Reuters