BAGHDAD - The assassination Thursday of the leader of the Sunni Arab revolt against al-Qaeda militants dealt a setback to one of the few success stories in U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq, but tribesmen in Anbar province vowed not to be deterred in fighting the terror movement.
American and Iraqi officials hoped the death of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha would not stall the campaign to drive al-Qaeda in Iraq from the vast province spreading west of Baghdad and reconcile Sunnis with the Shiite-led national government.
It was the biggest blow to the Anbar tribal alliance since a suicide bomber killed four anti-al-Qaeda sheiks as they met in a Baghdad hotel in June. Abu Risha himself had escaped a suicide attack in February. But those attacks and others did not stop the campaign against al-Qaeda.
Abu Risha, head of the Anbar Awakening Council who met with President Bush just 10 days earlier, died when a roadside bomb exploded near his home just west of Ramadi as he returned from his farm, police Col. Tareq Youssef said. Two bodyguards and the driver also were killed.
Moments later a car bomb exploded nearby but caused no casualties. An Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said the second bomb was intended as a backup in case Abu Risha escaped the first blast.
The attack occurred one year after the goateed, charismatic, chain-smoking young sheik organized 25 Sunni Arab clans into an alliance against al-Qaeda in Iraq, seeking to drive the terror movement from sanctuaries where it had flourished after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
No group claimed responsibility for the assassination, but it was widely assumed to have been carried out by al-Qaeda, which already had killed four of Abu Risha's brothers and six other relatives for working with the U.S. military.
U.S. officials credit Abu Risha and allied sheiks with a dramatic improvement in security in such Anbar flashpoints as Fallujah and Ramadi after years of American failure to subdue the extremists. U.S. officials now talk of using the Anbar model to organize tribal fighters elsewhere in Iraq.
Abu Risha's allies as well as U.S. and Iraqi officials insisted the assassination would not deter them from fighting al-Qaeda, and the tribal alliance appears to have gained enough momentum to survive the loss of a single figure, no matter how key. Late Thursday, Abu Risha's brother, Ahmed, was selected to replace him as head of the council.
Still, the loss of such a charismatic leader is bound to complicate efforts to recruit more tribal leaders in the war against the terror network. Two Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter, said the assassination sent a chilling message about the consequences of cooperating with the Americans.
"This is a criminal act and al-Qaeda is behind it," said Sheik Jubeir Rashid, a senior member of Abu Risha's council. "We have to admit that it is a major blow to the council. But we are determined to strike back and continue our work. Such attack was expected, but this will not deter us."
Ali Hatem al-Sulaiman, deputy chief of the province's biggest Sunni tribe, said that if "only one small boy remains alive in Anbar, we will not hand the province over to al-Qaida."
Islamic extremist Web sites praised the killing in a flurry of postings, one of which called Abu Risha "one of the biggest pigs of the Crusaders," meaning the Americans. Another said Abu Risha would spend the Muslim holy month of Ramadan "in the pits of hell."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who had been reluctant to support Abu Risha, expressed "great sorrow" over the killing, but said he was confident "that this criminal act will strengthen the determination of Anbar people to wipe out the terrorists."
During a visit Sept. 3 to al-Asad Air Base, Bush hailed the courage of Abu Risha and others "who have made a decision to reject violence and murder in return for moderation and peace."
"I'm looking forward to hearing from the tribal leaders who led the fight against the terrorists and are now leading the effort to rebuild their communities," Bush said. "I'm going to reassure them that America does not abandon our friends, and America will not abandon the Iraqi people."
In his appearance before Congress this week to testify about the situation in Iraq, the top U.S. military commander, Gen. David Petraeus, often cited the recent success in Anbar of the forces organized by Abu Risha, and he called the leader's killing tragic.
"It's a terrible loss for Anbar province and all of Iraq," Petraeus said in a statement released in Washington. "It shows how significant his importance was and it shows al-Qaeda in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy. He was an organizing force that did help organize alliances and did help keep the various tribes together."
Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said Abu Risha "was one of the first to come forward to want to work with the United States to repel al-Qaeda."
She said U.S. officials would "redouble our efforts" to work with local Iraqis to build support against those behind such killings. "There has been a complete shift in attitude over the past year or so and we have to capitalize on that," Perino said.
It was unclear how the killers managed to penetrate the web of security which protected Abu Risha, suggesting someone in his clan might have turned against him.
Abu Risha, who was in his mid-30s, lived in a walled compound of several villas that were home to him and his extended family, across the street from the largest U.S. military base in Ramadi. Within the walls were camels, other animals and palm trees, which he showed off to visitors.
He spent his days meeting with tribal sheiks, discussing the fate of Anbar and al-Qaeda. He was constantly busy, with lines of people waiting to speak to him, and took endless calls on his cell phone.
He smoked profusely and drank endless glasses of sweet tea. He carried a pistol, usually stuck in a holster strapped around his waist, and dressed in traditional flowing robes and headdresses.
Many Ramadi residents reacted with shock and sadness, calling Abu Risha a "hero" who helped pacify their city.
"We were able to reopen our shops and send our children back to school," said Alaa Abid, who owns an auto parts store. "Now we're afraid that the black days of al-Qaeda will return to our city."
A U.S. general, meanwhile, said a fatal attack on the headquarters garrison of the American military in Iraq this week was carried out with 240 mm rocket a type of weapon that he said Iran provides to Shiite extremists.
One person was killed and 11 were wounded in the attack Tuesday outside Baghdad at Camp Victory, which includes the headquarters of Multinational Forces-Iraq.
Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said the rocket was launched from the Rasheed district of west Baghdad, which he said was infiltrated by breakaway factions of the Mahdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Displaying a twisted piece of shrapnel from the attack, Bergner said military experts had so far determined only that its markings and manufacture were "consistent with" Iranian-produced munitions.
"Can I hold up a piece of fragment today that has a specific marking on it that traces this back to Iranian making?" he said. "At this moment I can't do that, but explosive experts as I said are still analyzing all the different fragments that they have gathered."
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