Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sunni Tribal Leader Killed

Bad news:

Iraqi tribal leader Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, head of the Anbar Salvation Council and a key figure in U.S. efforts to turn local residents against Al Qaeda in the restive Anbar province, was killed today by a roadside bomb, state television reported.

Abu Risha was a leading member of the Anbar Salvation Council and worked closely with U.S. officials. He was killed near his home in Ramadi, a town that at times has been under the effective control of Al Qaeda backed insurgents.

"This is a tragic loss," U.S. Gen. David Petraeus said when informed of Risha's death. "It's a terrible loss for Anbar province and all of Iraq. It shows how significant his importance was and it show Al Qaeda in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy."

Who was this Abu Risha and how significant is this loss? For that we turn to Marc Lynch, who wrote a lengthy post about Bush's visit to Anbar last week and meeting with Risha:

An hour with Bush was really quite a coup for Sattar Abu Risha. The head of the Anbar Salvation Council has a rather unsavory reputation as one of the shadiest figures in the Sunni community, and as recently as June was reportedly on his way out. As a report in Time described him,

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.

In June, Abu Risha's position in the Anbar Salvation Council came under a fairly intense internal challenge. As the Washington Post reported at the time,

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."

That's our guy. That's the pillar of America's Sunni strategy, and a key player in Fred Kagan's fantasy life.

Note also the rush to blame Al Qaeda, which is par for the course with military officials these days. Of course Al Qaeda was an enemy of Risha, but he had other enemies as well, notably Ali Hatem, mentioned in the Post clip above.

It's also important to note that hardly all the Sunnis are on board with the plans of the likes of Risha and Hatem, who by many are thought to only be contending for power through cooperation with our forces. The Sunni movement is hardly unified, as Lynh reminds us in this post:

The Association of Muslim Scholars, one of the most influential Sunni organizations in Iraq, has just released an unprecedented open letter to the "resistance". According to the Al-Haq Agency, this is the first time that the AMS has publicly addressed the resistance as a whole, making it a fairly significant event.

I mention the AMS open letter not only because it's an important political move within the Sunni community, and yet another signal of what the nationalist insurgency groups are trying to do - come together around a political program and form some kind of leadership which can act effectively in a post-American Iraq. I also mention it because it's important right now to emphasize that these groups are simply not going to sit back and allow the currently America-friendly tribal shaykhs to dominate Sunni politics. They see what's happening, and they are actively strategizing about how to frustrate the American plan to consolidate an "acceptable", supposedly pro-US leadership in the Sunni areas. The Sunni turn against al-Qaeda, and the current willingness to work with the US military, depended on a tacit agreement between the major insurgency groups and tribal leaders on the need to defend their turf. But reading recent insurgency literature makes it painfully clear that these groups remain committed to an American withdrawal (no matter what the Anbar Awakening crowd says) but also that they are deeply suspicious of the intentions and aspirations of those tribal leaders sitting down with Bush. It's pretty clear who they think is trying to "illegitimately steal the fruits of the resistance's victory".

So, it's clear that Risha represented only one leader of one element of the Sunni populace, a populace that is also represented by multiple insurgent groups that answer to no one, and is infiltrated by Al Qaeda to a lesser or greater degree. Risha was also a bandit and a warlord, though this hardly disqualified him as an American ally. I couldn't say for sure based on my limited reading, but I wouldn't say that Risha's death will have a tremendous negative impact on the stabilization efforts in Anbar. Rather, someone else is likely to rise in his place...which might have been the point of the bombing, after all.

UPDATE: Appropriately, I bring you Marc Lynch's thoughts on the death of Risha:

Nothing could have been more predictable than the murder of Abu Risha, the man most closely identified with America's Anbar strategy. He was the public face of the turn against al-Qaeda, and Petraeus immediately said that "it shows Al Qaeda in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy." But there's no reason to assume that al-Qaeda killed him - I'd guess that one of the nationalist insurgency groups, the ones which current American rhetoric pretends don't exist - is a more likely suspect. Other tribes deeply resented him. The major nationalist insurgency groups had recently issued a series of statements denouncing people who would illegitimately seize the fruits of their victorious jihad - of whom he was the prime example. All those photographs which swamped the Arab media showing him shaking hands with President Bush made him even more a marked man than before.

His murder graphically demonstrates that the other groups threatened by the American Anbar strategy were never going to just sit back passively and allow it to succeed - an obvious strategic point which has always seemed to elude surge advocates. The Sunni strategy as presented by surge advocates has always rested not only on a whole series of dubious claims about Iraqi Sunni politics, but also relies on a whole series of best-case scenarios in which nothing could go wrong. In Iraq, something always goes wrong.


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