The top al-Qaida terrorist killed in the US raid on Syria was about to stage an attack in Iraq, defence sources said today.
The operative, known as Abu Ghadiyah, was the leader of the most prolific network moving foreign fighters into Iraq from sanctuary in Syria.
Last spring US intelligence picked up similar reports that Abu Ghadiyah was planning an attack in Iraq. The information – not detailed enough to act on - was followed by the murder of 11 Iraqi policemen. Abu Ghadiyah personally led the attack, said a senior US official who did not want to be named.
“The trip wire was knowing an attack was imminent, and also being able to pinpoint his location,” the official said.
The US helicopter-borne attack five miles into Syria from Iraq was planned to coincide with the customary late afternoon rest period. A ground attack was chosen over a missile strike to reduce the chance of civilian casualties.
Syria said troops in four helicopters attacked a building and killed eight people, including four children.
A US military official insisted today: “Absolutely no women or children were killed.
“American troops put themselves at risk to ensure children and women would not be killed in the Syria incident,” he said.
The raid capped nearly a year of debate among the CIA, US special forces and commanders in Iraq about how to handle the Syrian side of the Iraq foreign fighter problem.
“This operation is just part of a wider campaign to take the fight to (al-Qaida in Iraq) not just inside Iraq but to other areas,” a senior US military official said.
The plan was laid out more than a year ago by General David Petraeus, then-US commander in Iraq: “Strangle their resources and capabilities including money, foreign fight flow, sanctuaries, media outlets, key leaders, bomb making networks and support by local Sunni tribes,” the intelligence official said.
The United States had asked Syria to hand over Abu Ghadiyah months prior to the raid, the intelligence official said. Syria rebuffed the US request, saying it was monitoring Abu Ghadiyah’s activities.
The raid came just days after the commander of US forces in western Iraq said American troops were redoubling efforts to secure the Syrian border, which he called an “uncontrolled” gateway for fighters entering Iraq.
Selective US military action across the borders of nations friendly and unfriendly is a demonstration of overt military strength that the US has been reluctant to display in public for fear it would backfire on US forces or supporters within these governments.
Now senior US officials favour judicious use of the newly aggressive tactics. They reason that whatever diplomatic damage is done will be mitigated when President George Bush leaves office and a new president is inaugurated.