By Rhonda Roumani
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
DAMASCUS, Syria, Sept. 12 -- Four armed men attacked the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday, killing one Syrian security guard and wounding several people in what authorities said was an attempt by Islamic guerrillas to storm the diplomatic compound.
Just after 10 a.m., gunmen yelling " Allahu akbar " -- "God is great" -- opened fire on the Syrian security officers who guard the outside of the embassy in Damascus's Rawda district, witnesses said. The attackers threw grenades at the compound, according to witnesses, and shot at the guards with assault rifles during the 15- to 20-minute clash, which left three of the gunmen dead and the fourth reportedly wounded.
In addition to the slain security officer, another guard was wounded, along with a Chinese diplomat and several civilians, including seven Syrian workers and two Iraqis. No Americans were wounded, the embassy said in a statement.
Syria's interior minister, Gen. Bassam Abdel Maguid, said on state television that the attack was a "terrorist operation" carried out by Islamic militants who tried to detonate two cars filled with explosives in front of the embassy.
Syrian authorities said they disarmed a small truck that had been rigged with gas canisters and pipe bombs but had failed to detonate. The charred remains of a car could also be seen in front of the embassy, but witnesses said the relatively small explosion that destroyed it appeared to have been caused by grenades rather than a car bomb.
There were no immediate assertions of responsibility for the attack, and Syrian officials did not blame a specific group, though in the past they have attributed similar strikes to a little-known group called Jund al-Sham, or the Soldiers of the Levant. Reports about the group on Syrian television have shown images of seized weapons, but no information on its goals, makeup, whereabouts or popularity has ever been made available by the government.
U.S. officials praised the Syrian guards who battled the assailants. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Stellarton, Nova Scotia, after talks with Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay, said that "the Syrians reacted to this attack in a way that helped to secure our people, and we very much appreciate that."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: "We're appreciative of their professional response in this effort."
The Syrian Embassy in Washington issued a statement saying: "In accordance with the Geneva Convention, Syria performed its duties in the best possible manner to protect the U.S. Embassy. . . . Syrian security forces took the full brunt of the attack."
The statement added: "It is regrettable that U.S. policies in the Middle East have fueled extremism, terrorism and anti-U.S. sentiment. . . . The U.S. should take this opportunity to review its policies in the Middle East and start looking at the root causes of terrorism and broker a comprehensive peace in the Middle East."
Relations between the United States and Syria have been tense for years, with the Bush administration denouncing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its support of Lebanon's Hezbollah militia and for harboring leaders of Palestinian factions that the United States has designated as terrorist groups.
In the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Syria shared information related to terrorism with the United States, but after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, President Bush blamed Syria for failing to close its border with Iraq to insurgents. Bush recalled U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey from Damascus after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005. Many accuse Syria of orchestrating the attack.
The U.S. Embassy compound here is in the capital's diplomatic neighborhood, close to the Iraqi, Italian and Chinese embassies. It is surrounded by white walls described variously as eight to 15 feet high, with U.S. Marines providing security inside the compound and Syrian security forces outside.
Shortly after the attack Tuesday morning, a large plume of smoke rose over the compound, and a trail of blood ran down a nearby street where the gunmen were shot as they tried to escape, witnesses said.
Although the street of the embassy was closed, police allowed parents of students at a nearby school to slip past the barricade to pick up their children, many of whom were in tears. The embassy's American flag, which had been lowered to half-staff the day before in commemoration of the Sept. 11 attacks, was raised to its full height a few hours after the fighting.
"We could not believe that it would happen in the middle of the day in the most secure area of Damascus," said Ayman Abdul-Nour, a political analyst who saw the battle unfold. "In front of me, this gentleman from the Syrian intelligence force in civil uniform stumbled to the ground and blood was coming out of him."
In recent years, several attacks have been carried out against foreign embassies in Damascus.
In February, demonstrators protesting the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in European newspapers set fire to the Danish Embassy here. In April 2004, four people were killed in a gun battle that took place on a major road that is flanked by a large number of embassies.
And in December 1998, during a U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq, mobs assaulted U.S. and British diplomatic buildings in Damascus, and Syrian guards and U.S. Marines rescued the wife of U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker as rioters broke into the couple's residence.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.