American forces killed the head of a Syrian network that funnelled fighters, weapons and cash into Iraq during the cross-border helicopter raid, according to a US anti-terror chief.
The raid targeted the home of Abu Ghadiyah, the nickname for the leader of a key cell of foreign fighters in Iraq, according to the official.
The US Treasury Department identified Abu Ghadiyah as one of four major figures in al-Qaida’s Iraq wing who were living in Syria.
Yesterday, a villager said US forces grabbed two men and took them away by helicopter during the cross-border raid.
During funerals today, residents shouted anti-American slogans and carried banners reading: “Down with Bush and the American enemy.”
Syria’s foreign minister condemned the raid as “cowboy politics”.
The Syrian government said four US military helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction shortly before dusk, killing eight people in Sukkariyeh – a village about five miles inside the Syrian border.
A US military official in Washington confirmed that special forces had conducted a raid in Syria that targeted the network of al-Qaida-linked foreign fighters moving through Syria into Iraq.
“We are taking matters into our own hands,” the official said.
The attack is another sign that the United States is aggressively launching military raids across the borders of Afghanistan and Iraq to destroy insurgent sanctuaries.
In Pakistan, US missile strikes have killed at least two senior al-Qaida operatives this year and ramped up the threat to groups suspected of plotting attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan and terror strikes in the West.
A Sukkariyeh resident said he saw at least two men taken into custody by American forces and whisked away by helicopter.
Another villager displayed amateur video footage he took with his mobile phone that shows four helicopters flying towards them as villagers point to the skies in alarm.
At the targeted building, about a five-minute drive off the main road, the floor was bloodstained and white tennis shoes were surrounded by blood and pieces of human flesh. A tent pitched near the site had bags of bread, pots and pans and wool blankets.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino refused to confirm, or even discuss, Sunday’s attack.
Iran condemned the attack as did Russia, which has had close ties with Syria since Soviet times.
The raid also put the Baghdad government in an awkward position while negotiating a security pact with the United States.
Iraqi officials said they hoped the raid would not harm their relations with Syria, but the government spokesman in Baghdad noted that it happened in an area known as a terrorist haven.
“We are trying to contain the fallout from the incident,” Iraqi Foreign Ministry under-secretary Labid Abbawi said. “It is regrettable and we are sorry it happened.”
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, however, said the area where the raid occurred “is a theatre of military operations where anti-Iraq terrorist activity takes place”.
Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moallem warned that if there was a repeat attack on Syria “we would defend our territories”.
The Syrian government statement said eight people were killed, including a man and his four children and a woman. However, local officials said seven men were killed and two other people were wounded, including a woman among the injured.
An Associated Press journalist at the funerals in the village cemetery saw the bodies of seven men – none of them children. The discrepancy could not immediately be explained.
The attack comes at a time when Syria appears to be making some amends with the United States.
Though Syria has long been viewed by the US as a destabilising country in the Middle East, Damascus has been trying in recent months to change its image and end years of global seclusion.
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.