BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A Sunni Arab tribal leader instrumental in driving al Qaeda out of Iraq’s Anbar province was killed by a bomb on Thursday, hours before U.S. President George W. Bush prepared to endorse limited U.S. troop cuts in Iraq.
Abdul Sattar Abu Risha died in an attack on his car near his home in Ramadi, capital of Anbar. He led an alliance of Sunni Arab tribes called the Anbar Salvation Council that joined forces with U.S. troops to push al Qaeda from much of the western area.
Abu Risha was killed less than two weeks after he and other tribal leaders met Bush during a highly symbolic trip to Anbar on September 3, where Bush declared that improved security in the desert province was an example of what could happen elsewhere in Iraq.
The Bush administration has touted security improvements in Anbar as one of the biggest recent success stories in Iraq.
Iraq’s government and the White House condemned the attack on Abu Risha. Iraqi officials blamed Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
The U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, called the killing of Abu Risha “a terrible loss for Anbar province and all of Iraq.”
“It shows how significant his importance was and it shows al Qaeda in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy,” Petraeus said in an interview with The Washington Post published on its Web site.
Bush, seeking to rally support amid growing Democratic opposition to his Iraq strategy, will use a televised address on Thursday night to embrace a proposal by Petraeus to gradually remove five of 20 military brigades now in the country.
Administration officials would not specify how many troops that would involve, but an Army brigade is typically made up of roughly 4,000 soldiers plus an unknown number of support troops, making for a total withdrawal of more than 20,000.
“Because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home,” Bush planned to tell Americans after Petraeus delivered two days of congressional testimony that highlighted deep partisan divisions over the war, with some Democrats demanding radical troop cuts now.
Excerpts of Bush’s speech were released in advance.
A senior administration official said on Thursday Bush intended to withdraw 5,700 troops from Iraq by December.
The partial drawdown approved by Bush would effectively reduce troop levels from the current 169,000 to about the same force the United States had in Iraq before the president ordered a buildup in January.
The proposed reduction would not be as fast or as large as Democrats in the U.S. Congress have demanded, but could buy time for the president to pursue the war by undermining a push for a wider withdrawal.
Bush was to make clear the size of the troop cuts would depend on continued progress in Iraq and note that the Iraqi government ”has not met its own legislative benchmarks.
Police sources said Abu Risha was killed by a roadside bomb that targeted his armor-plated car, discounting earlier suggestions a bomb had been planted in the vehicle.
Three bodyguards and an aide to Abu Risha were also killed in the attack on the day Iraq’s Sunni Muslims marked the start of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
“The sheikh’s car was totally destroyed by the explosion. Abu Risha was killed,” Ramadi police officer Ahmed Mahmoud al-Alwani told Reuters.
Residents said a state of emergency had been declared in Ramadi and that American and Iraqi troops had poured into the streets in a heavy show of force.
“Abu Risha played a prominent role in confronting the extremists who tried to hijack the province of Anbar and set up an oppressive and backward entity in the land of Iraq,” said a statement from the prime minister’s office.
Abu Risha, who was believed to be in his early 40s, set up the Anbar Salvation Council last year to fight al Qaeda, an effort held up by U.S. leaders as one of the biggest success stories in improving security.
His brother, Ahmed Abu Risha, would take over as head of the council, a source in the body said.
Bush’s trip last week to Anbar would have been unthinkable just months ago when it was the most dangerous province in Iraq for U.S. troops and the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency.
“It was once written off as lost. It is now one of the safest places in Iraq,” Bush had said.
In Washington, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell called Abu Risha “a brave warrior.”
Al Qaeda once controlled large swaths of Anbar but it angered local tribal leaders with its indiscriminate killing of civilians and harsh interpretation of Islam.
Abu Risha was instrumental in getting young men to start joining local police forces, a development that has sharply reduced levels of violence and forced many al Qaeda fighters to flee to other provinces.
Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Paul Tait, and Matt Spetalnick, Tabassum Zakaria and Andrew Gray in Washington