The Sheik who was our friend in Anbar

Sterling Jenson:

From May 2006 until May 2007, I was an interpreter for most of the meetings between U.S. government officials and Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the Sunni sheik killed by a car bomb Sept. 13 in Ramadi. I watched as Abu Risha changed over time from an unknown local tribal leader to arguably the United States' best hope in Iraq. His death was a shock to me, but it was not unexpected, given the dangers surrounding him. Unfortunately, though, Abu Risha's life and efforts are being misinterpreted by some in Washington.

Abu Risha was no ordinary sheik or ordinary man -- he was fearless, even if it meant being branded pro-American in an area that not long before had been crawling with al-Qaeda forces.

I have many memories of Abu Risha, and I vividly recall him standing up in September last year in front of his fellow Sunni sheiks in Ramadi -- then the most dangerous place for U.S. troops in all of Iraq -- and declaring: "The coalition forces are friendly forces, not occupying forces!" The other sheiks looked on nervously. Yet six months later, those same sheiks were following Abu Risha's lead and forging their own relationships with the United States.


Abu Risha would frequently say that if the United States would support the local Iraqi police and army, he would help us "fight al-Qaeda all the way to Afghanistan."

Abu Risha advocated a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq. He supported the long-term outlook that President Bush articulated in a speech this month -- and he saw Anbar as key to this effort.

Yet Abu Risha also firmly believed that empowering the Iraqi people to expunge anti-democratic forces such as al-Qaeda would be the only way to win this war. He did not believe victory would come through American initiatives such as the surge.


If we are to beat al-Qaeda in Iraq, we will have to learn to trust the Iraqis, even though they might not do things the way we would. The bottom line is that Iraqis want to take charge in Iraq, and we need to let them.

That appears to be the way things are moving in Iraq. I think it is largely because of the support of the Sheik in Anbar that we have decided to trust more Iraqis in the grass roots bottom up movement rather than in the top down government movement.


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