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Story Publication logo February 26, 2010

Rick Rowley Discusses Abu Risha's Death on Democracy Now!


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"Iraq: Death of a Nation" examines how the U.S. invasion and occupation created a multi-faceted...

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Rick Rowley was interviewed on Democracy Now! on September 14th about his interaction with Abu Risha in Amman, Jordan during one of his last taped interviews. Abu Risha's death is considered a major setback for U.S. forces in Anbar. Democracy Now! broadcasts never-before-seen excerpts of Abu Risha in this broadcast exclusive.

Listen to the interview.

Interview transcript:

JUAN GONZALEZ: In a prime-time address last night, President Bush vowed the war in Iraq would continue for the rest of his presidency and beyond. He said security had improved enough for a limited reduction in the number of troops.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Now, because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home. The way forward I have described tonight makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together.

This vision for a reduced American presence also has the support of Iraqi leaders from all communities. At the same time, they understand that their success will require US political, economic and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency. These Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America. And we are ready to begin building that relationship, in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Bush singled out progress in Anbar province, where former Sunni insurgents have switched sides and are now fighting alongside US troops against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The changes in Anbar show all Iraqis what becomes possible when extremists are driven out. They show al-Qaeda that it cannot count on popular support, even in a province its leaders once declared their home base. And they show the world that ordinary people in the Middle East want the same things for their children that we want for ours: a decent life and a peaceful future.

In Anbar, the enemy remains active and deadly. Earlier today, one of the brave tribal sheikhs who helped lead the revolt against al-Qaeda was murdered. In response, a fellow Sunni leader declared, "We are determined to strike back and continue our work." And as they do, they can count on the continued support of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: The assassinated tribal leader was named Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha. He died Thursday in a bombing near his home in Ramadi. One year ago to the day, Abu Risha organized twenty-five pro-US Sunni clans to form the Anbar Awakening to fight members of al-Qaeda. His assassination is considered a major setback for US forces in Anbar. President Bush met with Sheikh Abu Risha just ten days ago, during his brief visit to Anbar province.

Listeners and viewers of Democracy Now! might recognize Sheikh Abu Risha's name. On Tuesday we played an excerpt from an expose that aired on Al Jazeera English. It was produced by Rick Rowley, David Enders and Hiba Dawood, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. They interviewed Sheikh Abu Risha in Jordan in July.

SHEIKH SATTAR ABU RISHA: [translated] If you want to introduce me, I am head of the Iraq Awakening Council, leader of all the Iraqi Arab Tribes. I am real. I am not a ghost. And to the terrorists, I say that I will be in Anbar in five days, and if they want to see me, I am ready for them.

AMY GOODMAN: The piece also explored US military actions in Anbar province.

RICK ROWLEY: Although Captain Wohlgemuth and his troops call their new tribal allies "freedom fighters," the Americans are well aware that yesterday they were called "insurgents" and that the diplomatic task of holding together this new alliance is both delicate and daunting.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: Every one of these guys shot at us at one time in their life.

Oh, there you go. Look at the freedom fighters. Salaam Aleikum.

RICK ROWLEY: The Army use a combination of incentives to keep their alliance together.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: I owe him $1,800 for the --

RICK ROWLEY: Captain Wohlgemuth hand out money for construction projects, and he offers help to families trying to get their relatives out of jail.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: Yeah, he's asking where his son is. Tell him we're going to work to get him released.

The problem was, when we came in here, we arrested everybody. If they had more than a weapon in their house, they went to jail. But now they're -- "Can you please help us? You know, our fathers, our sons" -- everybody is in jail. Everybody has a relative in jail. And we can make some huge friends if we can help to release them.

IRAQI CIVILIAN: I swear to God we didn't do anything! I swear to God he is innocent!

RICK ROWLEY: Captain Wohlgemuth says the reconciliation strategy is working in Taji and other parts of Iraq. He claims there is one man to thank for that.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: Sattar Abu Risha, a living legacy in his own right. He's probably better known as Lawrence of Arabia to the Americans. His legacy is what allowed this to happen in a lot of different places. And it's happening in Amiriya, they've got freedom fighters. In Abu Ghraib, they've got some freedom fighters. And they all say it's generally because of that, because he was first one to really do it. The major sticking point is trying to get the government of Iraq to buy into groups of armed Sunnis so close to Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: Filmmaker and journalist Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films, who produced this piece, joins us in the New York studio. He has just returned from Iraq and Jordan, interviewed the sheikh in Jordan in July.

Welcome. It's great to have you back. Just a few days ago, we played this documentary. Talk about the significance of the assassination of Abu Risha, Rick.

RICK ROWLEY: Well, his assassination just tears another huge hole in the story that the American administration has been trying to sell us about a victory and a success in Iraq. You know, in their story, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was a Lawrence of Arabia figure who was leading an uprising of Sunni tribes that was going to kick out al-Qaeda and was going to be a close ally of the Americans. The situation is obviously much more complicated than that.

As our film showed, you know, first of all, the group is internally split and divisive. I mean, there are different factions who are fighting for control of it. Al-Qaeda or the Sunni tribes, insurgent tribes, who are opposed to Abu Risha are still active and present in Anbar. And the most important fact is that many of these groups who are part of this Anbar Awakening and Iraq Awakening are actually war criminals who are responsible for sectarian cleansing and who are arming and using US support to prepare themselves for a sectarian civil war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the impact, not just of him being killed, but it seems to me the timing of al-Qaeda in their ability to pull off these actions that have much more of a propaganda value, just after Bush met with him and just before Bush was going to deliver a speech to the nation.

RICK ROWLEY: It's absolutely incredible. I mean, you see Abu Risha basically says what Bush said. He says, "Bring it on," to the insurgents. And it's amazing to me, as well, that they were able to reach him at exactly that moment. But he was more of a PR person anyway, like his position was not at the level of organizational military on the ground. He was a symbol that the Americans used to sell the story abroad and a symbol that they used to try to convince other tribes inside Iraq to join. It certainly is going to have a deeply chilling effect on any other tribes in other parts of the country who are considering working with the Americans. I mean, when he shook hands and kissed Bush, it was a kiss of death. One week later, he's blown up outside his home.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain again how it is that you found him.

RICK ROWLEY: Well, we were traveling to Iraq to do a series of exposes for Al Jazeera. And one of them, we knew that this story about the tribes was a key part of -- was going to be a key part of Bush and Petraus's strategy to justify the war, so that was the first story we were looking into. We were in contact with his people in Ramadi, who were going to take us out there. And when we were in Amman, as we were trying to get a hold of him, they were like, "Oh, Abu Risha's not in Ramadi. He's actually in Amman." So we managed to meet him there.

He didn't end up ever actually coming into Ramadi the whole time we were in the country. It turned out he was doing business in the Gulf. He wasn't there. I mean, one thing that might be -- has struck me could be a horrifying fact, it's possible that he came to Ramadi just to meet with Bush for this photo-op and was there, I mean, just because he doesn't spend much time in the country. He's traveling all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: You found him at the Marriott.

RICK ROWLEY: We found him at the Marriott, the top floor of the Marriott Hotel in Amman.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick, let's play more of your interview with Sheikh Abu Risha. These excerpts have never been aired before. Sheikh Abu Risha was asked about what kind of support the United States has given the Iraqi Awakening Conference.

SHEIKH SATTAR ABU RISHA: [translated] The American forces gave arms to the police, not to the tribes. The Iraqi government also gave weapons to the police, but not to the tribes. No one gave weapons to the tribes. When I hear these reports, I tell the friendly forces and the Iraqi forces, "Where are these weapons? OK, give us weapons." Until now, no one has given us any weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: Sheikh Abu Risha went on to name some of the Americans he has worked with.

SHEIKH SATTAR ABU RISHA: [translated] I am friends with General Petraeus, General Caskin [phon.], General Allen, Colonel Sheridan [phon.]. I am friends with all friendly forces stationed here.

AMY GOODMAN: During his interview, Sheikh Abu Risha maintained Ramadi was 100% secure. It was near Ramadi where he was assassinated yesterday.

SHEIKH SATTAR ABU RISHA: [translated] Ramadi and Khaldiya are 100% secure. Ramadi and Hit, 100% safe. Haditha, 90%. Hassabi, 100%. All these places, 90% to 100% safe. They have total security.

AMY GOODMAN: Sheikh Abu Risha was also asked about when he thinks American troops can leave Ramadi.

SHEIKH SATTAR ABU RISHA: [translated] I think after the terrorist actions are stopped and after the Iraqi police and army are strengthened, when the army is 100% prepared and the police are 100% trained, perhaps our friends, the Americans, can leave for another place. It is up to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha interviewed in the top of the Marriott Hotel in Amman, Jordan, by independent journalist, filmmaker, Rick Rowley and Dave Enders. As you listen to this -- I mean, you just did this a little while ago -- your thoughts, Rick?

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, I mean, it's kind of chilling, actually, to see him and know that he died yesterday morning.

One thing that I think needs to be clarified is exactly how these tribes are being supported materially by the Americans. It's true that the Americans are not actually handing M-16s to many of the tribes. They are -- way it works is, once you sign up, you immediately -- the local commanders have access to SERP funds, which are emergency funds that commanders can disperse without any checks and balances, without any oversight. So they hire the militias -- you know, like when we were in Taji, they hired 300 militia members to clean weeds out of a canal. And you can see in the video the captain handing a wad of cash to the militia member who is guarding a checkpoint. Then the idea is that after you are a member for a few months, that they convince the Iraqi government to incorporate you wholesale into the police force. And then you get an AK, a badge and the power to arrest. So, you know, they've created a buffer to try to create this plausible deniability, so Petraeus can go up there and say, pretend like he's not arming and supporting them, when, in fact, he's directly supporting these guys.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Rick, the near chaotic complexity of the militia situation in Iraq, you've told about how you kept being handed off from one militia to another just to get through different parts of the country. Talk a little bit about that again.

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, I mean, Iraq is now -- it's impossible to even talk about it as one coherent country, really. The government certainly isn't one coherent government. The Iraqi army is many armies inside one army. Even inside Baghdad, Baghdad is dissolved into armed camps who have their weapons turned against each other.

We spent six weeks, and we crisscrossed the country. In every city, we had to embed with a different militia, with the Badr Brigades and with [inaudible] in Najaf, with the Fadila militias in Basra and with the Sadrists in Baghdad. But now, the number of militias is multiplying and fracturing. Now the Americans are arming one Sunni militia against another Sunni militia, with the looming threat and the current presence of a sectarian civil war between the Sunni militias and the Shia militias. So it's just dizzyingly complex, overwhelmingly violent and completely unlivable.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Rowley, right now -- you did the interview with Abu Risha. Then you went into Iraq. You see the US involved in the arming first of -- well, Petraeus himself, you talked about, arming Shia and now arming Sunni. The significance of this?

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah. Well, the US is now arming both sides. From 2004 on, they incorporated wholesale the Shia militias, the Badr Brigades, into the Iraqi Security Forces. So they're being armed and funded and sustained and built by the US occupation. Now they're funding and supporting Sunni militias, so they're funding both sides, or many facets and sides of a really complex civil war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the chances that you got to talk to ordinary Iraqis who are not part of these militias, the sense in the population now, where all these years into the war, after more than a decade of the sanctions and the air war of the United States, the sense among ordinary people, this never-ending conflict?

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, I mean, you know, even 2004, the last time I was there, you could still talk to people who would say -- you know, people who maybe had construction -- had contracts with the Americans and were making money off of the occupation would say that things had gotten better. There was no Saddam. There were, I mean, a few, a tiny minority. Now, you can't find anyone who will say that. The situation is bad, and everyone knows it's going to get worse. Iraqis say to us all the time today is better than tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it's interesting. Just looking at, a piece by Spencer Ackerman, "Petraeus' Subordinate: Yes, We Are Arming Sunnis." And it says, "On at least three occasions that I counted during the Petraeus/Crocker hearings, Gen. Petraeus flatly stated that the US is not providing weapons to the Sunni tribal fighters who, over the past year, have turned against al-Qaeda [in Iraq]. On Monday I noted," he says, "how he the US was giving the tribes money that they used to buy weapons, making Petraeus' assurance precious and legalistic.

"But it turns out that earlier this year, US commanders weren't so defensive about the terms of their deal with the tribes. Here's Major General Benjamin Mixon, commander of U.S. troops in northern Iraq, on those terms [in June]:"

He's asked a question: "Will the assistance or the coordination with these former insurgent groups extend to arming [them] or helping them out in logistics in any sense?"

And General Benjamin Mixon says, "It certainly will. We have seen this in counterinsurgency operations before, using local nationals, if you will, arming them, forming them into scouts, if you will. And that's the primary role that we want to use them in. They know the territory, they know the enemy."

RICK ROWLEY: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, the Petraeus report is full of deliberate distortions of cherry-picked statistics and statistics that disagree with the Iraqi government and with independent journalist reports and with downright lies.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Rowley, thank you very much for joining us, independent filmmaker with Big Noise Films. We'll link to his full report that we played just two days ago here on Democracy Now! and the extended one that was played on Al Jazeera English. Thank you very much for joining us.


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