The major Sunni sheik who John McCain said was protected by the surge and subsequently helped lead the Anbar Awakening, was actually assassinated by an al-Qaeda led group in midst of the surge.
On Tuesday evening, McCain falsely claimed that the downturn in violence in Iraq's Anbar province was a result of the surge, when in fact the surge began months afterward. Moreover, he said, if it weren't for the work of U.S. forces, the major Sunni figure leading that awakening wouldn't have had the protection he needed.
"Colonel MacFarland was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks," said the Senator. "Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others. And it began the Anbar awakening."
The Arizona Republican's campaign went further the next day, claiming that the major figures that turned around Anbar province would have been killed had the surge policy not been in place. "If Barack Obama had had his way, the Sheiks who started the Awakening would have been murdered at the hands of al Qaeda," said spokesman Tucker Bounds.
Sadly, that murder took place even with the surge underway. In September 2007, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the sheik widely credited with persuading Sunni leaders to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq, died in a bomb attack in Anbar. His work, prior to then, was held as a major effort in transforming the province from one of Iraq's deadliest areas into one of its safest.
It was in a September 2006 interview with UPI, when U.S. Army Col. Sean MacFarland first spoke about Sattar's efforts. "Some of the sheikhs have begun to step forward and some of the insurgent groups began to fight against al Qaeda," he said. His reference was Sattar, according to a Reuters article published upon the sheik's death.
"When U.S. Army Col. Sean MacFarland, working in his Pentagon office last Thursday, heard that a tribal leader had been killed in Iraq's Anbar province, his first reaction was: "Please don't let it be Sattar."
His fears proved well-founded. A bomb had killed Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the founder of a movement of Sunni leaders who turned against al Qaeda in Iraq, who are also Sunnis, and transformed Anbar from one of Iraq's deadliest areas into one of its safest.
MacFarland is in a unique position to offer insights into the movement Sattar led and how it may develop without him. As a brigade commander in Iraq, he was present at the alliance's founding and worked closely with Abu Risha for months.
"I owe him a lot," MacFarland said. "He was a young guy with a great vision of the future and he was a fast friend of the United States."