ramadi, iraq -- Save for the thick black brows stamped across his forehead, Sheik Ahmed Buzaigh Abu Risha bears little resemblance to his younger brother Sattar, the dashing sheik with the arresting eyes who was one of the most recognizable allies of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Where Sattar, who was killed in a bomb blast last month, was sharp-edged and lean, Ahmed is soft and round. Where Sattar was at ease in the limelight, Ahmed seems introverted. Where Sattar exuded an air of menace, Ahmed comes across as firm but gentle.
Asked in an interview at the sprawling compound of the Abu Risha family, also known as Rishawi, whether he missed his brother, Ahmed replied brusquely, “Of course,” then sat stoically as his eyes shone with tears.
For a year, Sattar led the Anbar Salvation Council, an alliance of more than 40 Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province whose decision to cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi forces is credited with turning the region from one of the deadliest in Iraq to one of the calmest. It is a job that got Sattar killed, and it is a job that Ahmed has inherited, whether he wants it or not. The council unanimously voted Ahmed in the day of Sattar’s slaying.
Ahmed has taken over at a pivotal time for Anbar and the U.S. Supporters of President Bush’s military strategy are looking to Anbar to bolster their claims of progress in Iraq. A contingent of 2,200 Marines left the province last month and will not be replaced. It is a small but symbolic decrease that tests the ability of Iraqis to preserve the relative stability in place here.
The brothers’ differing styles have led to speculation about whether Ahmed will sustain the momentum of the Anbar Salvation Council.
“Sattar had the kind of charisma and personality that drew people in. His personality was a unifying factor,” said Army Col. John Charlton, the commander of U.S. troops in the Ramadi area. “We watched Sattar emerge as a leader over the months, and it was pretty remarkable. He became statesmanlike. There’s that possibility Ahmed will emerge in the same manner.”
Ahmed said he never hesitated to accept his new position. “All of the Iraqis are expecting something from us, and we have to give them something,” said Ahmed, who is three years older than Sattar. U.S. officials say Sattar was 39, but his age also has been reported as 35.
The older brother gave spare answers during the interview in his home in the compound, which houses a cavernous meeting and greeting hall nicknamed the White House and the dwellings of other members of the Abu Risha clan. As Ahmed spoke, his 13-year-old nephew, bearing the family eyebrows, flipped TV channels with a remote control.
“We will continue everything that Sheik Sattar started, and hopefully we won’t veer off that road,” said Ahmed, wearing a dishdasha and a belt that held bullets and a pistol.
His role as a diplomat was apparent when he was asked his opinion of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government. Other sheiks make no secret of their distrust of the Shiite-led leadership and say Maliki is a puppet of Iran’s Shiite Muslim rulers. Ahmed accused Iran of “always putting pressure” on Maliki, but he did not criticize the prime minister.
Even though investigators say they have arrested several of the key planners of the attack, Ahmed said he was sure that followers of the insurgents who claimed responsibility for it would strike again and reclaim Anbar. “Of course our enemies are still in town. They are hibernating,” he said. “They will start operating as soon as they find a gap. When they find out we are sleeping, they will wake up.”
That gap could come, he said, when U.S. troops begin leaving.
Some question whether Ahmed is fearsome enough for a job that means facing down insurgents who have killed his father and three of his brothers.
Marine Maj. Rory Quinn, who visited Sattar regularly, compares Ahmed and Sattar to Robert and John F. Kennedy. Ahmed is RFK, “the man behind the throne"; Sattar was JFK, oozing charm but not someone to cross.
Quinn recalled an incident in July when a would-be truck bomber, who apparently planned to detonate a chlorine bomb near Sattar’s home, failed to set off his payload. Instead, he ended up rolling onto the sheik’s property in his tanker truck full of explosives-laden chlorine.
“They pulled him into the house. They gave him water and food,” said Quinn, who said Sattar told him the tale during a visit after the aborted attack.
Quinn told the sheik he was struck by the hospitality provided to a man who had clearly intended harm. The sheik and his aides chuckled at the major’s naivete and asked whether he would like to see the hapless bomber. Quinn demurred.
“I think they took him out back and killed him,” Quinn said.
“He killed terrorists, but he was magnetic and charismatic at the same time,” Quinn said of Sattar. “Ahmed does not strike fear in your heart. He is tremendously capable but not in the same way.”
His admirers say Ahmed’s style is what is needed now in Anbar, where U.S. troop deaths this year numbered 157 through September, compared with 240 by the same time last year, according to icasualties.org. In Ramadi, the provincial capital, things are so calm that U.S. troops spend evenings at various sheiks’ homes, sharing meals and conversation.
“Sattar was a good leader for the wartime. Ahmed is better in peacetime,” said Sheik Mohammed Frhan Hayes, a member of the Anbar Salvation Council, who like other sheiks said he had no qualms about voting Ahmed into the job.
Now, Ahmed said, he spends much of his time shaking hands and meeting with people in the meeting hall. He has no privacy until he shuts his door late at night, after all of his appointments have been kept. Despite his shy demeanor, he is unfailingly polite, offering visitors tea after business has been finished and lamenting that they did not show up early enough for dinner.
Asked at what point he might decide that his family had suffered too many losses to remain in Ramadi, Ahmed said determinedly, “We are in a war with Al Qaeda in Iraq. We’re not going to pack our bags and just walk away. Commanders do not withdraw from battle.”
Then, as his visitors drank tea, he quietly asked a confidant whether he had done well in the interview.