U.S. Calls Raid a Warning to Syria

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U.S. military helicopters launched an extremely rare attack Sunday on Syrian territory close to the border with Iraq, killing eight people in a strike the government in Damascus condemned as "serious aggression." Video by AP

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Iraq
By Ann Scott Tyson and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post staff writers
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

U.S. troops in helicopters flew four miles into Syrian territory over the weekend to target the leader of a network that channels foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq, killing or wounding him and shooting dead several armed men, U.S. officials said Monday.

U.S. officials have long complained that the Syrian government has allowed Arab fighters to pass through the country to enter Iraq, but since last year, top military leaders have praised Syrian efforts to curb the flow. In recent months, officials have estimated that as few as 20 fighters a month have been crossing into Iraq, down from more than a hundred a month in 2006.

But officials said the raid Sunday, apparently the first acknowledged instance of U.S. ground forces operating in Syria, was intended to send a warning to the Syrian government. "You have to clean up the global threat that is in your back yard, and if you won't do that, we are left with no choice but to take these matters into our hands," said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the cross-border strike.

The United States has offered similar justifications for recent cross-border strikes in Pakistan, where it has launched missile attacks and at least one air assault against suspected members of Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency. "As targets present themselves, and are identified . . . they become more and more at risk. Just like in Pakistan, there will be steps taken to deal with it," the senior official said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem called the operation Sunday a "criminal and terrorist aggression" that killed seven civilians. Speaking to reporters in London, he said Bush administration officials were following "the policy of cowboys" and noted that the United States has been unable to seal its own border with Mexico.

The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement expressing "serious concerns" about the raid and the loss of Syrian lives. Syria has lately embarked on policies that France and other Western governments have viewed favorably, including indirect peace talks with Israel. Russia also voiced concern about the operation.

In the raid, four helicopters carrying U.S. troops flew into an isolated area of scattered residences and buildings in search of an Iraqi insurgent whom the U.S. Treasury designated in February as a key facilitator of the transfer of weapons, money and fighters into Iraq. Treasury officials gave his full name as Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih and his nickname as Abu Ghadiyah, and said that the founder of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had named him the organization's commander for Syrian logistics in 2004.

On the ground, U.S. troops disembarked and opened fire to kill "several armed males who posed a threat to U.S. forces," according to the senior official. The official declined to say whether Mazidih was killed or injured in the fighting. Other unnamed U.S. officials were quoted in news media accounts Monday as saying he had been killed.

Moualem said U.S. troops landed at a farm where they killed a father and his three children, the farm's guard and his wife, and a fisherman.

The network run by Mazidih has smuggled hundreds of foreign fighters into Iraq, including many who became suicide bombers, officials and analysts said. "He ran one of the largest and most productive foreign fighter networks out of Syria" and was "directly responsible for hundreds of foreign fighters who killed thousands" of Iraqis, the senior official said.

The U.S. military has shown patience, the official said, but "eventually you can't wait for guys like that to come back across the border and kill scores of Iraqis or, worse, your own forces."

A summer 2007 U.S. military raid on a suspected al-Qaeda in Iraq house in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, near Syria, yielded a wealth of information about alleged Syrian smuggling networks used to move foreign fighters into Iraq.


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