Leader of Anbar awakening killed by roadside bomb

Read the fine print to see which road it was.

The Sunni sheik who came to symbolize the newfound cooperation between U.S. forces and tribal leaders in the former insurgent stronghold of Anbar province was killed today when a bomb planted outside his home went off, police said.

Col. Tariq Dulami, a police commander in Anbar, said Abdul Sattar Rishawi and two of his bodyguards died when the blast tore through their vehicle as it entered the driveway of Rishawi’s farm in Ramadi, the provincial capital.

According to an Iraqi policeman who spoke to the AP, “Abu Risha had received a group of poor people at his home earlier in the day, to mark 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 visitors.” How could they have planted the bomb without help from his security detail, though? Risha was the biggest target in Anbar; his security perimeter must have extended quite a bit farther than his own front yard. It must have been an inside job, as Sunni assassination attempts tend to be: the bombing at the Iraqi parliament building in April was allegedly carried out by an MP’s bodyguard and the near-killing of deputy PM Salam al-Zubaie the month before was perpetrated by a relative whom he tried to rehabilitate from his role in the insurgency by giving him a job in his security entourage.

All fingers are pointed at Al Qaeda but don’t be so sure. Risha was as suspect and disliked as he was influential. Time noted his reputation back in June:

Sheikh Sattar, whose tribe is notorious for highway banditry, is also building a personal militia, loyal not to the Iraqi government but only to him. Other tribes — even those who want no truck with terrorists — complain they are being forced to kowtow to him. Those who refuse risk being branded as friends of al-Qaeda and tossed in jail, or worse. In Baghdad, government delight at the Anbar Front’s impact on al-Qaeda is tempered by concern that the Marines have unwittingly turned Sheikh Sattar into a warlord who will turn the province into his personal fiefdom.

One of his rivals, Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman (remember?), announced a few weeks after Time’s story was published that the Anbar tribal coalition was breaking up thanks to Risha’s relentless corruption. That turned out to be wrong, but if you’re looking for suspects in today’s hit, there’s no shortage:

In an interview in his Baghdad office, Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, 35, a leader of the Dulaim confederation, the largest tribal organization in Anbar, said that the Anbar Salvation Council would be dissolved because of growing internal dissatisfaction over its cooperation with U.S. soldiers and the behavior of the council’s most prominent member, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha. Suleiman called Abu Risha a “traitor” who “sells his beliefs, his religion and his people for money.”…

Suleiman said 12 Anbar tribal leaders have signed an agreement to form a new coalition that would result in the dissolution of the Anbar Salvation Council and the purging of Abu Risha. “Those people have thrown themselves in the arms of the U.S. forces for their own benefit,” he said.

Suleiman and Welch alleged that Abu Risha runs an oil smuggling ring and that his followers have worked as highway bandits on Anbar’s roads, activities in which many tribal groups engage.

Abu Risha “made his living running a band of thieves who kidnapped and stopped and robbed people on the road between Baghdad and Jordan. That’s how he made his fortune,” Welch said. Tribesmen accuse Abu Risha of passing false information to U.S. forces about other tribal leaders in order to eliminate business rivals, Welch said.

Abu Risha denied these allegations and said Suleiman’s work in Baghdad left him out of touch with day-to-day affairs in the province.

Like Roggio says, the real damage done here is to the prospect of the Sunnis accepting the national government and participating in the next round of elections. Risha announced in April that he was organizing a political party that would have finally given the residents of Anbar genuine representation in Baghdad. Who knows which way that will turn now, especially if rumors start flying about one or more of the other tribes having been involved in his assassination.

We’ll see. For the left, at least, it’s a little good news after an unusually tough week. Here’s one of the last photos taken of Risha. You can tell how much he likes Americans.

Update: “Leave, but not now.”