Murdered Sheik Was Fearless Fighter, Colonel Says

Michele Norris talks with Army Col. Sean MacFarland, who worked with Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the Sunni tribal leader and U.S. ally assassinated Thursday. MacFarland remembers the sheik as a charismatic figure who was fearless in his fight against al-Qaida in Iraq.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The frailty of the situation is Iraq was apparent yesterday when a key U.S. ally in Anbar Province was assassinated. Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was killed in a bomb blast while leaving his home in Ramadi. In a Web posting today, an al-Qaida group in Iraq claimed responsibility. Sheikh Sattar had formed an alliance with other tribal leaders and the U.S. vowing to crush al-Qaida in Iraq. Army Colonel Sean MacFarland was the first American officer to work with the Sheikh. Earlier today, he recalled the circumstances, which led to the alliance.

Colonel SEAN MacFARLAND (U.S. Army): Well, his father and two of his brothers had been killed by al-Qaida. And he was obviously no friend of al-Qaida. But like many of the sheikhs in that area was pretty much neutralized, forced under the sidelines, and silenced through murder and intimidation of his family and his fellow tribe members. So, he was certainly open to being brought into a cooperative arrangement with the coalition.

NORRIS: How important was this sheikh to the alliance between the tribal leaders and the military?

Col. MacFARLAND: Well, he was very important. The thing to keep in mind about Sheikh Sattar is he was not necessarily the first sheikh to step forward. We were establishing police stations north of the river and he lived south of the Euphrates River, but he was watching. And when the sheikh of the Abu Jasham tribe was murdered by al-Qaida, he was the second sheikh to actually step forward and say, I'll take over from the Sheikh Abu Ali-Jasham.

What my boss, Lieutenant General Sattler, likes to call one of those great "I'm Spartacus" moments where the leader has fallen but others stand up and say "I'm Spartacus, no, I'm Spartacus." He was the first to stand up and say "I'm Spartacus." And once he did that, we watched to see how this would take shape. And he got together a large number of his fellow sheikhs at his house and on the 14th of September, I was with him when he formed this compact called the Anbar Awakening.

It was his vision and his charisma that really began this process. First with Ramadi-centered tribes and then they spread across Anbar, and then beyond Anbar, and now, it's even starting to spread into the Shia tribes. We began to recognize that Sheikh Sattar was very critical to the awakening movement in its early stages. So, I put one of my tanks out in front of his house as a visible symbol of our commitment to his security. And, actually, when I left there I left him with a wooden model of an M1 Abram's tank as a memento of our partnership.

NORRIS: What effect will his death have on the awakening?

Col. MacFARLAND: Well, we've had another I'm-Spartacus moment. His brother Ahmed has already stepped forward and said that he would fill his brother's shoes. But there was only one Sattar. He was a unique man and he was the man for the moment.

NORRIS: It seems like it's, perhaps, a bit difficult for you talk about Sheikh Sattar.

Col. MacFARLAND: Well, he's a friend of mine and his loss hit me pretty hard. My wife, yesterday, told me that it was a shock because once my brigade combat team had redeployed from Iraq, she thought we were kind of done with losses for a while and then losing Sattar was like losing a member of my brigade.

NORRIS: Now, Colonel, we just heard the president this week talk about a limited drawdown of troops. As we move into this phase, does it mean that this model will continue over the long run? Can you continue this model as the troops start to come home?

Col. MacFARLAND: Ah, yes. I think that there's still room to grow with this model. Obviously, it's going to bump up against limits. Inside of large cities tribal affiliations tend to break down, and Baghdad is a very large city obviously. There's a limit to how far you can take this, but we have not reached that limit by any stretch to the imagination.

NORRIS: And the Sunni tribal leaders are they in it for the long haul? Is it possible that once they vanquish al-Qaida that they might turn on the Americans or become more independent?

Col. MacFARLAND: Well, they - we certainly want them to become more independent in the long run, but there's no turning back for these guys. They have crossed the Rubicon. They've thrown in with the coalition for better or for worse. And now that they've partnered up us, they don't want to be left dangling. So, we need to make sure that we live up to our side of the bargain with the sheikhs that have come forward.

NORRIS: Colonel MacFarland, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Col. MacFARLAND: Well, thanks, Michele, for having me.

NORRIS: That's Army Colonel Sean MacFarland talking about Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha who is killed in bomb blast in Anbar Province yesterday.

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