I was in the middle of putting the finishing touches on an short piece about Iraqi Sunni politics due out later today when I got an urgent flash that Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha had been murdered in Anbar. Nothing could have been more predictable than the murder of Abu Risha, the man most closely identified with America's Anbar strategy. He was the public face of the turn against al-Qaeda, and Petraeus immediately said that "it shows Al Qaeda in Iraq remains a very dangerous and barbaric enemy." But there's no reason to assume that al-Qaeda killed him - I'd guess that one of the nationalist insurgency groups, the ones which current American rhetoric pretends don't exist - is a more likely suspect. Other tribes deeply resented him. The major nationalist insurgency groups had recently issued a series of statements denouncing people who would illegitimately seize the fruits of their victorious jihad - of whom he was the prime example. All those photographs which swamped the Arab media showing him shaking hands with President Bush made him even more a marked man than before.
His murder graphically demonstrates that the other groups threatened by the American Anbar strategy were never going to just sit back passively and allow it to succeed - an obvious strategic point which has always seemed to elude surge advocates. The Sunni strategy as presented by surge advocates has always rested not only on a whole series of dubious claims about Iraqi Sunni politics, but also relies on a whole series of best-case scenarios in which nothing could go wrong. In Iraq, something always goes wrong.
It's a major setback for the strategy, particularly at the symbolic level. Even if Abu Risha was a poor choice to "lead" the strategy, he was in fact elevated to that symbolic position by American propaganda and practice (that meeting with the President, for instance). His murder demonstrates that even America's closest friends are not untouchable - not even on the day of a Presidential address expected to rely heavily on progress in Anbar. The political fallout of the murder inside of Iraq may well exceed Abu Risha's actual role in Sunni politics.
UPDATE: Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the assassination. According to an Iraqi blogger, Abu Risha's tribal rival Ali Hatem Sulayman blamed al-Qaeda for the assassination during an al-Arabiya interview (I didn't see it). The insurgency's forums are joyous, with "Allahu Akbars" everywhere. Virtually every story, whether in sympathetic or hostile Iraqi outlets, features the same pictures of Abu Risha with Bush. The al-Boraq forum, which runs statements from all factions but is currently hosted on the server of the Islamic Army of Iraq, features a post which praises God for the killing: "the mujahideen promised and they delivered." One posting on the al-Falojah forum asks "what has happened to us Iraqis, that we celebrate the killing of one of our brothers?" - but receives little sympathy in the comments which follow.
The most telling reaction: the Anbar Salvation Council itself is publicly pointing the finger at the Maliki government. So much for "bottom-up reconciliation": the first instinct of America's chosen Sunni interlocutors, and the core of "bottom up reconciliation", is to blame the Shia-led national government for the murder of their leader.