BAGHDAD, (AP) – The U.S. military on Saturday confirmed the arrests of 25 people linked to the assassination of the leader of the U.S.-backed revolt by Sunni Arab tribesmen in the western Anbar province against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The suspects, who include the head of the security detail that was supposed to protect Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, killed in a bombing Sept. 13, were detained by Iraqi police, Lt. Col. Jubeir Rashid said, an Iraqi police officer in Anbar.
Abu Risha’s killing — just 10 days after his meeting with President Bush — dealt a blow to one of the few success stories in U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq. The tribal leader was credited with bringing together Anbar sheiks into an alliance against the extremists, after years of American failure to tame flashpoints such as Ramadi and Fallujah.
Rashid said Friday that Abu Risha’s security chief, Capt. Karim al-Barghothi, confessed al-Qaeda in Iraq had offered him $1.5 million for the slaying but that he was arrested before he could collect the money.
Two other bodyguards as well as some of Abu Risha’s neighbors were also detained, Iraqi police said. The arrests took place two days after the bombing. Al-Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the assassination.
Abu Risha, who organized 25 Sunni Arab clans into an alliance against al-Qaeda, died along with two bodyguards and a driver when a bomb exploded near his walled compound just west of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.
Maj. Jeff Pool, a U.S. military spokesman for western Iraq, praised the Iraqi investigation into the attack.
The U.S. military earlier said an al-Qaeda-linked militant, identified as Fallah Khalifa Hiyas Fayyas al-Jumayli, an Iraqi also known as Abu Khamis and connected to Abu Risha’s death and a plot to kill other tribal leaders, had been arrested during a raid north of Baghdad.
Pool said Abu Khamis was arrested with two others.
Abu Risha’s death raised concerns that without his powerful presence in the Sunni alliance, Anbar could slide back into violence, but tribesmen in Anbar province have vowed not to be deterred in fighting the terror movement.
There are also fears that the slayings this week of two associates of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, could worsen a Shiite power struggle in the country’s oil-rich south.
The killings of the two cleric aides late Thursday in separate shootings within 30 minutes in the southern cities of Basra and Diwaniyah, prompted some clerics to go into hiding or abandon their robes and turbans for their own safety.
At least four other associates of al-Sistani have been assassinated in the holy city of Najaf since June, including one stabbed to death about 30 yards from the house where the Iranian-born al-Sistani lives.
The attacks reflected the precarious security across much of Iraq and suggested that the Shiite-Shiite competition for domination in the south is growing deeper and bloodier.
Additionally, the recent withdrawal of British troops from central Basra to the nearby airport has threatened to allow Iraq’s second-largest city become a free-for-all for rival Shiite factions.
In violence Saturday, gunmen ambushed an Iraqi police checkpoint in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing one officer and wounding five others, according to authorities. A civilian also was killed in Khalis, a Shiite enclave near Baqouba in the volatile Diyala province, when gunmen opened fire on his car.