BAGHDAD — A key U.S. ally in the Sunni Muslim tribal rebellion against al Qaida in Iraq was in his own protected compound Thursday when an explosion from a hidden bomb ripped through his armored vehicle, killing him, his nephew and two bodyguards.
Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who as head of the Anbar Salvation Council had lunched with President Bush less than two weeks ago, had just left a ceremonial building where sheiks greet guests and was returning to his house a short distance away in the early afternoon when the bomb went off. He was killed instantly.
Interior Ministry spokesman Abdel Karim Khalaf said it was unclear who'd killed the tribal leader. Suspicion immediately fell on al Qaida in Iraq, but the organization hadn't claimed credit for the killing by Thursday night. Others suggested that Abu Risha could have fallen victim to rival Sunnis worried about political competition.
The timing of the explosion, hours before Bush was to give a nationally televised address on Iraq policy, was a reminder of the tenuous nature of U.S. claims of success in Anbar province, where the rebellion by tribal groups against al Qaida has become the Bush administration's No. 1 example of military progress here.
Bush underscored the importance of the arrangement when he visited Iraq earlier this month, meeting with Abu Risha at a sprawling U.S. military base in Anbar while not visiting the Iraqi capital.
The bombing in what should have been a secure compound suggested that the assassin had help from someone in Abu Risha's inner circle, said Hamid al Hayes, a tribal sheik who was among Abu Risha's confidants.
The head of Anbar's governing council said Abu Risha's death wouldn't derail the movement.
"Killing Abu Risha will not end his phenomenon," Abdul Salam Abdullah said. "There will be another Abu Risha and another Abu Risha."
Abu Risha had become the poster boy for the Anbar Salvation Council, the tribal group that formed a year ago to combat al Qaida in Anbar. He was pictured on anti-al Qaida posters holding a rifle as gunmen fled. He was featured in a government-made television documentary, "The�Land of Fire,"�with his distinctive bushy black mustache, neat goatee and the finest camel hair robes of beige and black.
Abu Risha's high profile made his death unsurprising, said Lt. Col. Richard D. Welch, a U.S. expert on Iraq's tribes. "You can't have that kind of high visibility here and not expect something like this," he said.
At one time, American forces were "augmenting" Abu Risha's security, said Marine Maj. Jeff Pool. But Pool said he didn't know whether that was still the case. When traveling outside the compound, Abu Risha usually was surrounded by police and heavily armed guards.
The White House condemned the death in a statement and hailed Abu Risha's efforts "to take the fight to al Qaida and bring peace and security to Anbar."
It was the second assassination of Anbar tribal leaders who are key to the anti-al Qaida in Iraq rebellion. In June, four sheiks of the Anbar Salvation Council were killed along with eight other people when a�suicide bomber�slipped past security at a central Baghdad hotel and detonated the explosives he was wearing.
Mithal Alusi, a secular Sunni lawmaker from�Anbar and an Abu Risha ally, said Abu Risha had anticipated his death.
During a dinner at the home of former Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari a month ago, Alusi said, Abu Risha joked with him about which of them would die first. "I would like to be a martyr before you have this honor," Alusi quoted Abu Risha as saying.
It was the last time they spoke.
Abu Risha, along with dozens of other tribal leaders, agreed to renounce al Qaida in Iraq a year ago. Their group gained widespread attention in the United States earlier this year after American troops began to support it and absorb its members into the Iraqi government's security forces late last year.
The arrangements with the tribes led to a significant drop in attacks on U.S. forces in Anbar, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, and became a model for similar deals in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, and some Baghdad neighborhoods.
Among other things, Abu Risha was credited with cleaning up Anbar's capital, Ramadi, once a bastion for the Sunni Islamic extremist movement, a place so dangerous last summer that the chances of gunfire or a bomb on any two-hour patrol were about 90 percent, Marines said. Attacks there are rare now.
In interviews,�Abu Risha�often had said that he'd decided to take up arms against religious extremists after they killed his father and three of his brothers.
He had high political aspirations in recent months, sending envoys to meet with tribal sheiks in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood and saying he was ready to assume a role in the central government. He'd announced a few days before his death that he and other tribal leaders planned to run in the next elections as a political bloc. Earlier this year, he'd pledged to take his fight to the rest of Iraq.
He'd been the target of at least one other assassination attempt since he struck his deal with the United States. Two suicide car bombers rammed the compound where he lived in February.
For all his positive publicity, Abu Risha was a controversial figure. He was a sub-tribal sheik who made his living off smuggling and was a known bandit. More prominent tribal leaders, such as Ali Hatem al Suleiman, the prince of the largest Sunni tribe, the Dulaim, publicly accused him of thievery and using police to conduct extrajudicial killings.
But he delivered thousands of men when the United States asked for fighters against Sunni extremists, Brig. Gen John Allen, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Anbar, told McClatchy Newspapers in June.
"Go find a tribal leader that isn't a smuggler," Allen said.
(Price reports for The (Raleigh) News & Observer. McClatchy Newspapers Special Correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)