WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States on Thursday denounced the slaying of a top Iraqi Sunni sheikh who led a fight against Al-Qaeda as an "outrage" but said it would not hamper efforts to rout the terrorist group from his home province of Anbar.
"The murder of the sheikh today in Anbar is an outrage," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said after a bomb killed Sheikh Sattar Abu Reesha near his home in Anbar's capital Ramadi.
The attack came just hours before US President George W. Bush, who shook the sheikh's hand during a surprise trip to Iraq 10 days ago, was due to make a televised address defending his handling of the war.
"America has to realize the national security implications of not staying and making sure that Iraq is secure and that Al-Qaeda does not establish a safe haven in Iraq," said Perino.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had accompanied Bush to Iraq, said "this act of terrorism can only be seen as an attempt to silence and intimidate those who are determined to build a peaceful, unified, and stable Iraq.
"The United States condemns such criminal acts and stands with the people of Al-Anbar province who have shown a firm determination to work against Al-Qaeda and other extremists who seek to harm the Iraqi people and destabilize the country," she said.
Bush in his televised address was expected to tout Anbar as a success story in US-led efforts to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the local affiliate of Osama bin Laden's jihadist group, though it was not certain he would mention the sheikh's role.
The sheikh "was one of the first who came to the Americans saying he wanted to work with the Marines in order to expel Al-Qaeda from Anbar," said Perino, who signaled confidence that effort would continue.
"Don't take my word for it, look at what was reported to be said by one of his colleagues: 'This does not deter us, this makes us even more determined in order to fight against this enemy,'" she said.
Abu Reesha, in his forties, was the leading figure in the Anbar Awakening Conference, a coalition of some 25 tribes which came together in September last year and pledged to fight Al-Qaeda militants by forming their own paramilitary units and supplying recruits to the local police.
Senior Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who met the sheikh only a week ago, offered condolences, but said the killing reflected the fragile security environment in Iraq.
"His leadership created hope for local governance and eventual stability in Anbar," Biden said.
"His assassination today underscores the lack of security in Iraq, including Anbar."
The Pentagon said the assassination was a "tragic loss" but expressed hope the movement he led against Al-Qaeda will survive him.
"Despite the tragic loss of Sheikh Sattar, he has ignited a movement that will outlive him," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
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