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Ramadi’s Sunni sheiks unfazed by slaying

Times Staff Writer

ramadi, iraq -- Sheik Raad Sabah Alwani’s cellphone beeped with a text message: “Watch your back,” it read, before going on to warn the Sunni tribal leader that he would be killed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The sheik laughed as he showed the message to U.S. troops and Iraqi friends during a late-night feast of chicken, lamb, dolmas and other local favorites. It was Sept. 28, halfway through Ramadan.

Alwani was careful not to translate the full Arabic text: It included a dirty phrase, he explained good-naturedly while entertaining visitors in the garden of his villa, under the palm fronds and stars.

For a man with a death threat stored in his phone, Alwani seemed remarkably unworried. His friend Sheik Abdul Sattar Rishawi was slain Sept. 13, the first day of Ramadan for Iraq’s Sunnis, in a blast for which the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility. Another close friend, police Lt. Col. Salam Mohammed Abbas, died Feb. 14 when a bomb sent a chunk of metal slicing through his skull.

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Like his slain friends, Alwani is a prominent member of a movement started last year to ally tribal leaders with U.S. and Iraqi forces against the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

But Alwani and other sheiks say the slayings of Abbas and Rishawi, who headed the pro-U.S. Anbar Salvation Council, were lucky hits by militants struggling to reclaim an area that has abandoned the insurgency.

“These people, they cannot affect the battle against terrorists,” Alwani said of the killers.

The assertion appears to be holding up for the time being, at least in Ramadi and its surrounding areas. The region remains calm under a blanket of Iraqi police, who are impossible to miss in their cobalt blue, button-down shirts. Many of the officers say they feel safe enough to work without body armor.

The investigation of Rishawi’s slaying suggests that an unusual combination of events enabled his assailants to strike.

At least nine people have been arrested, including one of Rishawi’s bodyguards. U.S. military officials say the bodyguard recently had been promoted to head Rishawi’s security detail after the sheik argued with his previous chief bodyguard. Other sheiks say the detained guard had been offered as much as $1.5 million to kill Rishawi.

A police station sits across a dirt road beyond the back gate of Rishawi’s sprawling compound, but road work there made it easier for killers to plant the bomb that destroyed the sheik’s car as it passed, investigators say.

Alwani said that because it was clearly an inside job, he has felt no need to beef up his security, which consists of a posse of armed men and loyal police officers in his affluent Ramadi neighborhood. Like most of the city’s districts, it is a virtual gated community, with blast barriers and concertina wire limiting access and Iraqi security forces checking vehicles.

Alwani spoke between puffs on a Cuban cigar, a gift from Marine Maj. Rory Quinn, a regular visitor. Gazelles grazed under a tree in a corner of the garden. Lights flooded a scene that Quinn noted could not have been possible a year ago.

“A third of these guys were shooting at us last year. That guy in particular!” the major said cheerfully as a young man with an assault rifle, one of Alwani’s guards, waved hello.

In the northern Ramadi district of Jazeera, where Rishawi lived, Sheik Mohammed Farhan Hayes was similarly unfazed. He has named his home Defiant, Hayes said, indicating the brick structure under construction on a lot overlooking a field in which two horses grazed.

Terrorists destroyed the old house last year, said Hayes, who also was Rishawi’s friend. “I’m not afraid of these guys,” he said.

Most of the area sheiks have had close calls with insurgents.

Hayes walks with a limp from a gun battle with would-be assassins who drove up alongside his vehicle and opened fire. U.S. forces accidentally shot Hayes when the rolling gunfight crossed their path.

Alwani survived a mortar attack on his neighborhood after he rejected insurgent demands to stop working with U.S. forces.

Rishawi’s father and two brothers had fallen victim to insurgents before they killed him.

Sheik Awad Jedie Albu Quod lost his brother, who was slain as he sat on the front stoop of the family home. Militants drove by and shot him, Albu Quod said as he chain-smoked Gauloise cigarettes one recent evening after iftar, the breaking of the daylong Ramadan fast.

He said these tragedies, along with shared anger over Rishawi’s death, had backfired on the insurgents, who had hoped to stoke violence by killing the high-profile sheik who had met with President Bush 10 days before his death.

“They thought when they killed Sattar, security would collapse, but now it is better than before,” Albu Quod said.

Tribal leaders, police and Iraqi civilians have been galvanized to be more vigilant, he said. “We lost just one Sattar. We now have 1,000 Sattars.”

Rishawi and Abbas have been memorialized in posters around Ramadi, about 60 miles west of Baghdad. One shows Rishawi’s chiseled, heavily browed face in noble profile. The other shows Abbas smirking into the camera with a tough-guy gleam in his eyes, bearing a striking resemblance to a young Robert De Niro.

On Ramadi’s streets, residents wax eloquent about Rishawi, calling him “indispensable” and a “hero.”

Among ordinary citizens, there is no love for a foreign army, nor for the predominantly Shiite Muslim government it protects in Baghdad. But residents here express gratitude for the security that has allowed them to return to work, school and socializing.

Early each morning, the central market comes alive with vendors laying out colorful displays of fruit, clothing and trinkets. In Jazeera, Hayes showed off a new adult education center, where women in colorful sequined skirts and shawls mixed with others wearing somber, cloak-like black abayas.

“My God, I cannot believe that I am going with my students to school every day without fear,” said Salma Jasim, a Ramadi teacher. “I feel it is like a dream. We’ve started going to markets and going out at night after iftar to visit our relatives.”

Jasim and others credit the change to Iraqi police officers, most of them locals, with a stake in the community.

“We move freely because the people of the city control the security, not the Americans or the Iraqi army,” said Sattar Hussein, a trash collector. “The people of the city know who is from Al Qaeda and who is an agent who wants to make problems.”

Although residents say they would like to see the U.S. forces leave, the sheiks make it clear that they are looking to the troops to help maintain calm. They are well aware that insurgents would like to reclaim Ramadi and neighboring villages.

In June, attackers opened fire on men guarding a highway checkpoint outside the farming hamlet of Tarabsha, about 15 miles northwest of Ramadi. The area is the domain of Sheik Ashor Jero Hamadi Shabab, another member of the Anbar Salvation Council.

“Yes, I want the coalition forces to go back where they came from, but not now. We need them,” said Shabab, whose remote village has no permanent police presence. Instead, he pays 61 men who make up a neighborhood watch program.

“We’ve won the first battle against the insurgency, but we still have more to go,” he said. His private security guards nodded in agreement.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Susman recently was on assignment in Ramadi. A special correspondent in Ramadi contributed to this report.


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