SUKKARIYEH, Syria – A cross-border raid by U.S. special forces killed the al-Qaida-linked head of a Syrian network that smuggled fighters, weapons and cash into Iraq, an American counterterrorism official said Monday.
Blood stained the earth in this border village as anguished Syrians buried relatives they said were killed in the U.S. helicopter attack Sunday. Some shouted anti-American slogans and carried banners reading “Down with Bush and the American enemy.”
The operation targeted the home of Abu Ghadiyah, the nickname for the leader of a key cell of foreign fighters in Iraq, the U.S. official told the Associated Press from Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive intelligence.
The U.S. Treasury Department has named Abu Ghadiyah as one of four major figures in al-Qaida’s Iraq wing who were living in Syria.
U.S. authorities have said Abu Ghadiyah’s real name is Badran Turki al-Mazidih, an Iraqi in his early 30s who served as al-Qaida in Iraq’s head of logistics in Syria since 2004. His job included providing foreign fighters with passports, weapons, guides and safe houses as they slipped into Iraq and made their way to Baghdad and other major cities where the Sunni insurgency was raging.
Sunday’s operation in Sukkariyeh, about five miles from the Iraqi border, came just days after the commander of U.S. forces in western Iraq called the Syrian border an “uncontrolled” gateway for fighters into Iraq and said efforts were being stepped up to secure it.
The raid was another sign the United States is aggressively launching military raids across the borders of Afghanistan and Iraq to destroy insurgent sanctuaries. In Pakistan, U.S. missile strikes have killed at least two senior al-Qaida operatives this year.
The Syrian government said Sunday’s attack by four U.S. military helicopters targeted a civilian building under construction in Sukkariyeh shortly before sundown, and killed eight people, including four children.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem denounced the raid as “cowboy politics.”
“I hope it doesn’t come to a confrontation, but if that’s what they want, then we’ll be ready,” he told reporters in London.
Iran condemned the attack, as did Russia, which has had close ties with Syria since Soviet times.
Iraqi officials said they had no advance warning of the raid, and the government responded carefully to the aftermath, seeking to contain diplomatic damage with Syria while not offending the U.S.
Chief spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraq was seeking good relations with Syria but added that Baghdad had asked the Syrians in the past to “hand over terror groups operating on Syrian territory.”
He also noted the attack occurred in an area where “anti-Iraq terror activity” had taken place.
“We cannot judge this operation at the moment,” he said. “We must wait for our investigation to finish. We are in touch with the American side and we expect them to hand us a report on the raid.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials have long been concerned about infiltration across the Syrian border.
American special operations troops have been working for months to shut down Sunni extremist networks that smuggle weapons and fighters through Iraq’s northern desert to Mosul, where al-Qaida and other Sunni militants remain active.