Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha who, in his own words, led a "revolution" against Al Qaeda in Iraq's western Anbar Province was killed in a bombing Thursday. His death has tarnished one of America's rare success stories in the war.
Sheikh Abu Risha's death, which was the result of a roadside bomb explosion near his home in the provincial capital Ramadi, comes at a crucial time. The Sunni tribal forces he led were moving closer to creating a formidable block with sufficient weight to provide representation for the embittered community in the government and counter those Sunnis who still believe in using violence to achieve their aims. .
"This is a tragic loss," said Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, in a statement released in Washington by his spokesman. "It's a terrible loss for Anbar Province and all of Iraq. ... He was an organizing force who did help organize alliances and did help keep the various tribes together."
His death came 10 days after meeting President Bush during his visit to Anbar.
In his testimony before the House and the Senate, as well as in press conferences earlier this week, General Petraeus praised the decision of the Anbar tribes led by Abu Risha to begin fighting Al Qaeda in October, as well as the recapturing of Ramadi from the grips of militants. He described the tribes' actions as the most dramatic, surprising, and significant development in Iraq over the past eight months.
"The tribal rejection of Al Qaeda that started in Anbar Province and helped produce such significant change there has now spread to a number of other locations as well," he told Congress as he pointed to charts showing how monthly attacks in Anbar declined from 1,350 in October 2006 to 200 in August of this year.
Petraeus first met Abu Risha during an encounter outside a US military headquarters building in Ramadi in March.
"I have enormous respect for what you and your tribe have started," Petraeus told the sheikh during the meeting, captured by a videographer.
Abu Risha responded: "Anbar is with you, and people who tell you that Anbar is not with you, they are liars," Abu Risha said through an interpreter.
There has been a lot of tension recently between Abu Risha, who had founded the so-called Anbar Awakening of tribes against Al Qaeda in October, and Sheikh Hamid al-Hayes, who had presided over the subsequently formed Anbar Salvation Council.
Abu Risha rebuked Sheikh Hayes on national television for suggesting that tribesmen were ready to fill the ministerial posts. The positions had been vacated by the main Sunni political block when it withdrew from the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in August.
"Yes there was tension and rivalry between them but I do not think it would reach the point of assassination," says Sheikh Rafie al-Fahdawi, whose tribe joined the Awakening in April.
Despite talk from many circles in Anbar and elsewhere that he came from a family of highway robbers, Abu Risha with his fine tribal robes, goatee, and a pistol tucked in a hip holster had charisma and swagger that appealed to both the US military and many Anbaris and other Iraqis.
Popular poet Rahim al-Maliki, a Shiite who was killed along with other tribal leaders in a bomb attack in Baghdad hotel in June, had traveled to Anbar earlier this year to praise Abu Risha.
Abdul-Hameed al-Hardan, a lawyer who hails from one of the most prominent clans of the Al-Dulaim tribal confederation, said Abu Risha's family history did not matter as much as his ability to act as a catalyst in bringing the tribes together. He also lauded Abu Risha's ability to reach out to the politicians in recent months, including the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front.
"This is a blow because Sheikh Abdul-Sattar was smart to reach out to the politicians and start working on formulating demands for Sunnis on a national level and not just in Anbar," says Mr. Hardan, who had previously supported the insurgency and violent resistance to US forces.
In April, The Christian Science Monitor spent a whole day with Abu Risha in the village of Hamdhiyah on the outskirts of Ramadi and witnessed firsthand his influence on tribes in making them renounce their allegiance to Al Qaeda.
At that meeting the Bu-Fahed tribe, which had been among the most active supporters of Al Qaeda, threw its support behind Abu Risha.
"Let them commit suicide, we chose a dignified life and they chose shame and dishonor and they are finished," he told the dozens of Bu-Fahed tribesmen gathered that day.
"We are freedom fighters, we have dedicated ourselves to the province and we are one tribe and one hand. We will not waver from our goals."