The most prominent figure in a U.S.-backed revolt of Sunni sheiks against al-Qaida in Iraq was killed Thursday by a bomb planted near his home in Anbar province, 10 days after he met with President Bush, police and tribal leaders said.
Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha was leader of the Anbar Salvation Council, also known as the Anbar Awakening — an alliance of clans backing the Iraqi government and U.S. forces.
Officials said his assassination would be a huge setback for U.S. efforts in Iraq, because it sends a message to others who are cooperating with coalition forces or thinking about cooperating against al-Qaida.
Abu Risha and two of his bodyguards were killed by a roadside bomb planted near the tribal leader's home in Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital, said Col. Tareq Youssef, supervisor of Anbar police.
A spokesman for Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, confirmed the report.
"It is confirmed that the sheik and two of his bodyguards were killed today near or outside his home," Col. Steven Boylan said in an e-mail from Washington, where Petraeus testified before Congress this week on recent successes in Anbar province.
No group claimed responsibility for the assassination, but suspicion fell on al-Qaida in Iraq, which U.S. officials say has suffered devastating setbacks in Anbar thanks to Abu Risha and his fellow sheiks. It's unclear how his death would affect U.S. efforts to organize Sunnis against the terrorist network.
Abu Risha was among a group of tribal leaders who met with Bush on Sept. 3 at al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province.
It was not the first time that Abu Risha has been targeted. A suicide bomber tried and failed to kill him Feb. 19. That same day, gunmen ambushed a minivan on the main highway from Baghdad to Anbar and killed all 13 passengers who were accused of opposing al-Qaida in Iraq.
In June, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby of Baghdad's Mansour Hotel during a meeting of U.S.-linked Sunni tribal leaders, killing 13 people and wounding 27. Among those killed was the former governor of Anbar and sheik of the al-Bu Nimir tribe, Fassal al-Guood — a key ally of Abu Risha. A day later, al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack.
"It is a major blow to the council, but we are determined to strike back and continue our work," said Sheik Jubeir Rashid, a senior member of Abu Risha's group. "Such an attack was expected, but it will not deter us."
He said the bombing took place at 3:30 p.m. as Abu Risha was returning home.
A Ramadi police officer said Abu Risha had received a group of poor people at his home earlier in the day, as a gesture of charity marking 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.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said that after the first blast that killed Abu Risha, a car bomb exploded nearby.
"The car bomb had been rigged just in case the roadside bomb missed his convoy," Khalaf said. There were no casualties from the car bomb, he added.
After the bombing, police announced a state of emergency in Ramadi and set up additional checkpoints throughout the city, Rashid said.
Anbar police were investigating the attack, and the Interior Ministry would send a committee to assist, Khalaf added.
The Interior Ministry swiftly ordered plans for a monument to honor Abu Risha as a "martyr," Khalaf said. It would be built either at the explosion site or at the center of Ramadi, he said.