Abu Risha: war criminal?

First, the basic facts from the New York Times, Sept. 14:

Sunni Sheik Who Backed U.S. in Iraq Is Killed
BAGHDAD, Sept. 13 — A high-profile Sunni Arab sheik who collaborated with the American military in the fight against jihadist militants in western Iraq was killed in a bomb attack on Thursday near his desert compound. The attack appeared to be a precisely planned assassination meant to undermine one of the Bush administration’s trumpeted achievements in the war.

Two guards were also killed in the attack on the sheik, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, who just last week shook hands with President Bush during the president’s surprise visit to Anbar to extol the Sunni cooperation that has made the province, once Iraq’s most dangerous, relatively safe.

Iraqi and American officials were caught off guard by the assassination, which came just hours before Mr. Bush addressed the American people about his plans for Iraq. But they said it would not derail the collaboration of the alliance of Sunni clans, known as the Anbar Awakening Council, and groups in other provinces.

In his speech, Mr. Bush acknowledged the killing. “Earlier today, one of the brave tribal sheiks who helped lead the revolt against Al Qaeda was murdered,” he said. “In response, a fellow Sunni leader declared: ‘We are determined to strike back and continue our work.’ And as they do, they can count on the continued support of the United States.”

Sheik Sattar, 35, who was also known as Abu Risha, had become the public face of the Sunni Arab tribes in lawless Anbar Province that turned against the Sunni jihadists of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and began to fight on the side of the Shiite-led Iraqi government and the American military. His council was formed one day short of a year ago.

Local papers often featured photographs of the robed sheik talking with the American commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, with other American generals and with the Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. But Sheik Sattar was not unequivocally supportive; he often complained about the government’s failure to give his men the arms and support they needed.

He had credibility with the tribes because he and his family had suffered so much at the hands of jihadist extremists. In an interview earlier this year, he said that his father had been killed in an attack by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in 2004 and that two of his brothers had been abducted and never heard from again; a third was shot dead. He had survived three car bombs outside the Anbar home he shared with his wife and five children.

On Thursday, the American military said a bomb destroyed the vehicle he was in, but it was unclear whether it was a roadside bomb or a suicide bomber.

Now the dirt. This morning, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films—who, in turn, had interviewed Abu Risha in Jordan in July. He had this to say:

Well, his assassination just tears another huge hole in the story that the American administration has been trying to sell us about a victory and a success in Iraq. You know, in their story, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was a Lawrence of Arabia figure who was leading an uprising of Sunni tribes that was going to kick out al-Qaeda and was going to be a close ally of the Americans. The situation is obviously much more complicated than that…

[F]irst of all, the group is internally split and divisive. I mean, there are different factions who are fighting for control of it. Al-Qaeda or the Sunni tribes, insurgent tribes, who are opposed to Abu Risha are still active and present in Anbar. And the most important fact is that many of these groups who are part of this Anbar Awakening and Iraq Awakening are actually war criminals who are responsible for sectarian cleansing and who are arming and using US support to prepare themselves for a sectarian civil war.


One thing that I think needs to be clarified is exactly how these tribes are being supported materially by the Americans. It’s true that the Americans are not actually handing M-16s to many of the tribes. They are — way it works is, once you sign up, you immediately — the local commanders have access to SERP funds, which are emergency funds that commanders can disperse without any checks and balances, without any oversight. So they hire the militias — you know, like when we were in Taji, they hired 300 militia members to clean weeds out of a canal. And you can see in the video the captain handing a wad of cash to the militia member who is guarding a checkpoint. Then the idea is that after you are a member for a few months, that they convince the Iraqi government to incorporate you wholesale into the police force. And then you get an AK, a badge and the power to arrest. So, you know, they’ve created a buffer to try to create this plausible deniability, so Petraeus can go up there and say, pretend like he’s not arming and supporting them, when, in fact, he’s directly supporting these guys…

[T]he number of militias is multiplying and fracturing. Now the Americans are arming one Sunni militia against another Sunni militia, with the looming threat and the current presence of a sectarian civil war between the Sunni militias and the Shia militias. So it’s just dizzyingly complex, overwhelmingly violent and completely unlivable.

See our last posts on Iraq, the sectarian cleansing and the Sunni civil war.

  1. Greg Palast: al-Qaeda in Iraq is “Easter Bunny”
    The relentlessly annoying Greg Palast has done it again. From his latest, dated Sept. 18:

    On Thursday, Bush said Abu Risha was killed, “fighting Al Qaeda” – and the White House issued a statement that the sheik was “killed by al Qaeda.”


    There ain’t no Easter Bunny and “Al Qaeda” ain’t in Iraq, Mr. Bush. It was very cute, on the week of the September 11 memorials, to tie the death of your Anbar toy-boy to bin Laden’s Saudi hijackers. But it’s a lie. Yes, there is a group of berserkers who call themselves “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.” But they have as much to do with the real Qaeda of bin Laden as a Rolling Stones “tribute” band has to do with Mick Jagger.

    Isn’t it interesting how Palast and his supposed antagonist Bush both portray the “real” al-Qaeda as a top-down, tightly-organized machine with Osama bin Laden at the top? As we have had to point out before, al-Qaeda is less a secret organization than a global movement—clusters of autonomous cells, with a wide base of support among interconnected grassroots networks. Legitimate journalists like Loretta Napoloeoni do not equivocate on the reality that the al-Qaeda of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is just as “real” as that of Osama bin Laden. Not only is Palast blinding himself (and worse, his readers) to the actual anatomy of Iraq’s insurgency, but his dismissive condescension is an insult to the now-countless Iraqi civilians that “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” has massacred.

    More to the point, Iraq’s legitimate civil resistance, who are fighting for secularism and co-existence, say they face three enemies: the US occupation and its allies and proxies; the Shi’ite militias with varying degrees of support from Iran; and Sunni militias with varying degrees of allegiance to al-Qaeda (and support from Saudi Arabia). But Palast has never given an inch of ink to Iraq’s civil resistance, and he never will. Taking facile shots at Bush (even when completely ill-informed) is what will win him fast accolades (and dollars)—not getting his hands dirty with the urgently-needed work of building solidarity.