RAMADI, Iraq, Sep 14 (Reuters) Sunni Arab Iraqis and US forces in Anbar province vowed on Friday to keep fighting al Qaeda after the assassination of a tribal leader who worked with Americans to create one of Iraq's few security success stories.
Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was killed in a bomb attack today near his home in Ramadi, provincial capital of what was once one of Iraq's most dangerous areas.
''All the tribes agreed to fight al Qaeda until the last child in Anbar,'' his brother, Ahmed Abu Risha, told Reuters.
An al Qaeda-led group said on Friday it was responsible for the killing of Abu Risha, according to an Internet posting on Friday. The self-styled Islamic State in Iraq called the killing of Abu Risha a ''heroic operation''. Its statement could not be authenticated, but it was posted on a main Islamist Web site.
Abu Risha, who met US President George W Bush less than two weeks ago, led the Anbar Salvation Council, an alliance of Sunni Arab tribes that worked with U.S. troops to push Sunni Islamist al Qaeda out of much of the vast desert area.
Ahmed Abu Risha was named as the council's new head hours after the death of his charismatic, chain-smoking brother, who wore flowing white and gold robes as he shook hands with Bush.
''The killing of Sheikh Abu Risha will give us more energy ... to continue confronting al Qaeda members and to dispose of them,'' said Sheikh Rashid Majid, a leader of the al-Bufahad tribe in Ramadi.
''But his murder will make us more cautious, because the reason for the killing of Abu Risha was careless security. We are 90 per cent sure that al Qaeda is behind the assassination.'' Many ordinary Iraqis agreed. ''All of Anbar owes this man, he offered security and stability,'' said 45-year-old Mohammed Hussain Ali from Ramadi.
Iraq's national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, Defence Minister General Abdel Qader Jassim and Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, second in command of US forces in Iraq, joined about 1,500 mourners at Abu Risha's funeral amid tight security.
VIOLENT BACKLASH ''Revenge should be made quickly,'' mourners chanted as the coffins of Abu Risha and two bodyguards, draped in Iraqi flags, were carried to the cemetery. ''We will chase the killers.'' Abu Risha was buried in the same Ramadi cemetery as his father and brother, both of whom were shot dead in the past two years. Another two of his brothers were kidnapped in Ramadi in the past three years and their whereabouts remain unknown.
''By killing Abu Risha al Qaeda wants to shut down the voice of Iraqi tribes. The heads of the tribes will continue to fight al Qaeda and we will support them,'' Rubaie told Reuters.
Abu Risha set up the Anbar Salvation Council last year as local Sunni tribal leaders became tired of the indiscriminate killings by al Qaeda and their harsh interpretation of Islam.
Once the heart of Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency and the most dangerous region of Iraq for US troops and Iraqis, it is now relatively safe after he helped persuade young men to start joining local police forces to secure their own neighbourhoods.
Bush, in a speech yesterday in which he promised a limited troop reduction from Iraq by next July, praised Abu Risha's bravery and pointed to the improved security in Anbar as evidence that U.S. strategy was making headway.
''He was a significant figure, there's no doubt about it. I'm sure this is a loss,'' said Major Jeff Poole, a US military spokesman in Anbar.
''What he started, it can't be stopped. We've gone too far. I think the council will move forward,'' he said.
Many in Anbar predicted a backlash after Abu Risha's death.
''The reaction will be violent against al Qaeda, who want to kill all of our tribal leaders, the police and army,'' said Mohmmed al-Fahdawi, a police lieutenant-colonel in Ramadi.
''We have decided not to be merciful toward anyone who sympathizes with al Qaeda because it is either us or them.'' Fahdawi said police and the military would launch ''a big offensive'' against al Qaeda strongholds on the outskirts of Ramadi and in Falluja, Khaldiya and other remote areas.
''The reaction will be fierce,'' said Assad Khaldon, a 40-year-old teacher from Falluja.
Reuters SZ VP0202