Less than a week ago, Sheikh Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha was greeting George W. Bush during the U.S. president’s visit to Anbar Governorate. Today, Abu Risha and two of his bodyguards were blown up by a car bomb in Ramadi, capital of Al-Anbar Governorate.
Abu Risha was one of the leaders of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council, an alliance of Sunni clans that recently declared war on Al-Qaeda and fought alongside U.S. and Iraqi government forces to reclaim the region from insurgents.
"The assassination was carried out by means of an explosive device placed on the car [of Sheikh Abu Risha]," Hamid al-Hayess, a fellow member of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. "The car flipped over, which led to the death of the sheikh, God be merciful. Sheikh Abu Risha, as you know, was the strongest [force for] national reconciliation, the termination of sectarian violence, and [the defeat of] Al-Qaeda in western Iraq. He was considered to be the spiritual, and physical leader of that area."
The assassination came hours before Bush is due to deliver a televised address outlining his future strategy for Iraq.
The Pentagon called Abu Risha's death a "tragic loss" and expressed hope that the movement he led against Al-Qaeda will survive him.
Al-Anbar security chief Colonel Tariq al-Dulaymi told Iraqi state television that Abu Risha was on his way home when he ordered his convoy to stop so he could help a handicapped man he saw sitting on the side of the road. "Soon after he got back in his car the bomb exploded," the police chief said.
From 2003 until last year, Al-Anbar had been the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency and one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq. Al-Qaeda once controlled large swathes of the desert region. But all that changed when Abu Risha and his men decided they had had enough.
During his visit to Al-Anbar early last week, Bush said improved security -- thanks to the tribal leaders -- was an example of what he hoped would happen elsewhere in Iraq.
Al-Hayess said the hunt for those who planned and carried out today’s assassination is well under way. Al-Qaeda’s hand is suspected.
"Investigations are still ongoing and, God willing, those involved will be identified, and we will reveal it then," he said. "But we suspect that Al-Qaeda is involved in this assassination through one of the sheikh's bodyguards."
Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Khalaf told Radio Free Iraq that the attack will not weaken the fight against militants.
"[The Al-Anbar Awakening Council] was built with blood and with struggle. The security situation has been regained by the blood of the Anbar people. [Abu Risha] was very important, but this [fight against terrorism] was not built upon persons, but upon institutions that are professionally and decently formed by the Ministry of the Interior, which makes it very difficult to go backward [to the earlier security situation in Al-Anbar]."