You probably missed it, but a good man was killed outside of Ramadi on Thursday. He was a Sunni Arab tribal leader named Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha.
He's not the first in his family to be killed. His father and three brothers were killed, not by rampaging US troops, but by his erstwhile "brothers" in Al Qaeda. A year ago, a year less a day from the time of his death, he got together with like-minded tribal leaders and declared war on Al Qaeda. See, AQ has this marketing angle of "Hey, we're all brothers here. Let's go forth and kick enemy X!", and since they bring along cash and expendables like explosives and people to drive them to public places and explode them on enemy X (Shi'a, US forces, anybody they don't like), they can achieve a level of acceptance in the short term. It turns out that they are pretty caustic to have around, though. They shoot people for suspected sexual impropriety. They dictate the content of mullahs' sermons. They cut off fingers for smoking, and they feel that as "brothers" they should have equal access to the tribe's women for purposes of marriage. And when the tribe disagrees, they're as vicious to the tribes as they are to enemy X. The funerals of Abu Risha's father and three brothers must have convinced him of this, if nothing else did.
And so the tribes of Anbar sought out the most heavily-armed tribe they could find, the United States Army and Marines, and accords were reached, and the fortunes of Al Qaeda began to decline precipitously in Anbar. This of course moved Abu Risha way up the target list, and he accepted that risk, and ultimately paid the price as a victim of an IED. The stuff I read from Michael Yon, Bill Roggio, Michael Totten and other journalists who venture beyond the bar at the Baghdad Sheraton and go into the field told me that the reversal of fortune in Anbar, once thought lost to Iraq and the West, was in large part the doing of this man. He was brave to take the stand he did, and he'll be missed -- but it's entire possible that Iraq will be forever changed because of him. I hope the Army or Marines find some way to acknowledge him in a culturally-relevant way, to show the Iraqis that he had our respect. I am sure they will.
What's telling about this is that the Sunnis, at least, realized that while the Americans were invaders, foreigners and infidels, they were more reliable than AQ. The tribes of course knew all about Abu Ghraib, they knew all about Mahmudiyah, where a few 101st Airborne troops dishonored themselves with rape and murder, they knew about the Marines at Haditha, they even probably knew more lurid "facts" invented or passed along through the rumor mill. And yet, they came to the Americans for help.
For all the discussion of what went wrong in the post-invasion, what should have been done, etc., in my opinion the people of Iraq and the Sunnis in particular had to really live with and experience the sublime bliss of a Salafist dictatorship under AQ before they would ever come to us for help. We are outsiders in Iraq, we always will be. The fact that we're also heavily-armed outsiders who defend ourselves avidly, and that maybe 1 in 20 of us over there speaks Arabic, does not help. Despite all this, the Iraqi tribes in Anbar looked at AQ, looked at us, and decided that there would be no way to run their own affairs without our help. It took three-and-a-half years for the Sunni tribes to realize this, and it also took some time for our folks over there to accept the fact that the tribes were the key to pacification, but Anbar is now one of the safest parts of the country. Just like GWB said, they're standing up and we're standing down in Anbar. Rather than a top-down solution like the relatively inept and wrong-footed central government in Iraq, this is a bottom-up solution that began in Anbar to solve the problems of Anbar, with genuine popular support.
The reason AQI had to take out Sheikh Risha is that similar bottom-up solutions can be had in many places in Iraq, and a forthright rejection of their ideology by fellow Muslims is not good PR for them. The Sheikh of the Dulami tribe of Anbar is a much better ambassador than anyone from the US could ever be to other Sunni groups in the nation. If in the future he had reached out in peace to Shi'a leaders, it would make a stable and democratic Iraq that much more likely. He made himself a target by the fact of his success, and his willingness to share the secrets of his success with other parts of the country.
Now, it's possible that AQI did not assassinate him, there are plenty of Shi'a elements that would love to decapitate and continue decapitating Sunni leadership figures, simply because every other Sunni leadership figure since the British left in the 1920s has been mildly to severely hostile to Shi'a interests. Forensics may give some clue as to what kind of IED was used, and where the explosives came from. A device typical for Shi'a militias would be something that could cause problems politically in Iraq, because the Sunnis need to get used to the idea that their new Shi'a political overlords ARE going to have a say in the government. Were I running AQI's operations, I would do my best to get my hands on a MADE IN IRAN self-forging projectile IED for this hit just to make things politically worse, to re-drive the wedge between Sunni and Shi'a that was first placed when the Golden Mosque of Samarra was bombed. I mentioned in a prior post that things were relatively quiet in the immediate aftermath of that attack, but boy was I wrong.
The Sheikh will be missed. I hope the movement he inspired will continue, and that Iraq is better for his relatively short life. More Iraqis standing tall like he did against murderous 8th-century throwbacks like AQI is always a good thing.
Sattar Iraq Sheikh Abu Risha