RAMADI, Iraq (AFP) – Sunni Arabs in Iraq’s Anbar province vowed on Friday to avenge the death of their leader, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, as premier Nuri al-Maliki blamed Al-Qaeda for the murder of the key US ally.
Thousands of angry and grieving mourners joined the funeral procession of the slain sheikh in Ramadi, capital of the western desert province, carrying his body 10 kilometres (six miles) from his home to the local cemetery.
“Revenge, revenge on Al-Qaeda,” shouted the crowd of mourners, an AFP correspondent reported.
“There is no God but Allah and Al-Qaeda is the enemy of Allah. Abdul Sattar is the pride of Ramadi.”
Abu Risha and three bodyguards were killed on Thursday when a powerful bomb ripped through their convoy near the tribal leader’s home outside the city.
The assassination came on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and almost a year after Abu Risha formed the Anbar Awakening Conference, a coalition of 42 Sunni tribes who along with US troops fought Al-Qaeda in Anbar.
“We blame Al-Qaeda and we are going to continue our fight and avenge his death,” said Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, who was elected new leader of the tribal coalition soon after his brother’s murder.
The prime minister was represented at the funeral by national security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, who condemned the assassination.
“It is a national Iraqi disaster. What Abu Risha did for Iraq, no single man has done in the country’s history,” Rubaie told the mourners gathered at the sheikh’s house.
“We will support Anbar much more than before. Abu Risha is a national hero.”
In a statement issued by his Baghdad office, Maliki said the attack bore “the fingerprints of Al-Qaeda” and was “aimed at destabilising the province of Anbar”.
Anbar security chief Tareq al-Dulaimi on Friday gave a new version of the attack that killed the sheikh.
He said a suicide bomber had blown up his car as Abu Risha’s convoy passed, and that the blast was not caused by a roadside bomb as he had initially reported.
“There is reconstruction work going on between the sheikh’s home on one side and a series of orchards on the other so the road which is usually sealed off had to be opened for traffic,” Dulaimi said.
“The terrorists exploited this situation to drive through a Mercedes car and blow it up near the sheikh’s vehicle.”
The interior ministry’s director of operations, Major General Abdel Karim Khalaf, confused issues, however, by saying that in fact two bombs had exploded.
“An explosive device was planted in the area between his house and his guest house and exploded at 3:20 pm Thursday,” Khalaf told AFP, adding that a car bomb was detonated immediately after the first explosion.
Khalaf did not specify who he blamed for the attack but said it would have been “difficult for al-Qaeda to work there.”
Statements on Islamist websites usually used by insurgent groups rejoiced at the sheikh’s killing and said it was the work of Al-Qaeda.
“The apostate Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, one of the biggest pigs of the Christian crusade, has been killed by the lions of Islamic unity. This is the beginning of the end of the Anbar Awakening Conference,” one message said.
“Abu Risha wanted to drive Al-Qaeda out of Anbar. But Al-Qaeda drove him not just from Anbar, but from the world itself.”
The sheikh’s killing is seen as a setback to US efforts to contain the violence raging through Iraq and to crush the Iraqi wing of Osama bin Laden’s jihadist group, alleged to be key perpetrator of the bloodshed in the country.
The slow restoration of order in Anbar had been touted by the US military as one sign that its troop surge strategy was working.
US President George W. Bush, who on a visit to Anbar last week had shaken Abu Risha’s hand and praised his efforts against Al-Qaeda, cited the boasted security improvements when he held out the prospect of a limited US troop withdrawal by next July in a televised address late Thursday.
Bush said some 21,500 combat troops would be withdrawn by mid-2008, but ruled out a full withdrawal and promised an “enduring” US presence in the war-torn country.
Meanwhile, seven policemen were killed when a suicide bomber blew up a truck in the northern Iraqi town of Baiji, police said.