A sheik and his desert pets

Some people have asked me about the photograph of me with the camels.

It was taken in Ramadi, Iraq, in April 2007 by my friend and former colleague Louie Favorite. We had spent two months in northern Iraq before arriving in al-Anbar province. Ramadi, the provincial capital was known as the world’s most dangerous city. It had just started to turn around because several Sunni sheiks started the Anbar Salvation Council. Enough was enough, they said. They helped quell the violence. Sunni insurgents who once aimed at U.S. soldiers and indiscriminately killed Iraqi civilians decided to keep the peace.

Behind it all was a sheik named Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi. He was young for a tribal leader — only 37. Regal in his flowing muslin robes trimmed with gold, white headdress and a neatly groomed goatee.

We are tired of the bombings, beheadings and mortar attacks, al-Rishawi said. Tired of seeing the blood of our people flow like the Euphrates through our city.

His name was uttered in all circles. From the moment I landed in Ramadi, Iraq, I heard al-Rishawi mentioned in almost every conversation — by American soldiers and Marines, Iraqi army and police and the people on the street. One resident hailed him as the closest thing to God.

No other man, perhaps, was as vital to keeping the peace in Iraq’s lawless Anbar province. Certainly, the U.S. soldiers who worked with him in Ramadi knew it. And apparently, so did the terrorists he helped defeat.

Louie and I visited his compound with U.S. soldiers. We were embedded then with the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team. We sipped hot syrupy tea and chatted with al-Rishawi’s brother about the future of Anbar, the future of strife-torn Iraq.

Months later, al-Rishawi was dead.

A bomb planted near his Ramadi home killed al-Rishawi just 10 days after President Bush lunched with him during a quick visit to Iraq and two days after Ramadi residents marked the first anniversary of the “Anbar Awakening.”

I can imagine his compound now — date palms swinging in the light breeze, the whir of air-conditioning units working overtime to keep the large house cool. I doubt the U.S. tank is still standing by the front gate. But I would venture to guess that the camels are still there, their faces locked in a permanent smile. Welcoming the outsider to a troubled land.

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