WASHINGTON // A US raid on a compound in Syria, just across the Iraq border, killed a top operative of al Qa'eda in Iraq who intelligence suggested was about to conduct an attack in Iraq, according to top US officials. The target of the afternoon attack in Sukkariyeh, Syria, near the Iraqi town Husaybah, was known as Abu Ghadiyah, the leader of the most prolific network that moves al Qa'eda associated foreign fighters into Iraq.
A US counterterror official said yesterday the United States has confirmed that Abu Ghadiyah was killed in the operation. The US operation was precipitated by intelligence that the Iraqi fugitive was planning an imminent attack in Iraq, a senior US official told The Associated Press. US intelligence picked up similar reports last spring. That information, not sufficiently detailed to act on, was followed by the murder of 11 Iraqi policemen just across the border from Abu Ghadiyah's Syrian compound, the official said.
Mr Abu-Ghadiyah personally led the attack, the official said. "The trip wire was knowing an attack was imminent, and also being able to pinpoint his location," the official said. Mr Abu Ghadiyah, also known as Badran Turki Hishan Al-Mazidih, was among those killed, a US counterterror official confirmed yesterday. All the officials spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive intelligence about the raid. The attack was carried out at 4.45pm local time. A ground attack was chosen over a missile strike to reduce the chances of hurting civilians not associated with Abu Ghadiyah's network, the official said.
Syria said troops in four helicopters attacked a building and killed eight people, including four children. The US official confirmed that women and children were at the house, but he said "they were protected at the objective and left behind." He did not specifically address whether any women and children were among the casualties. He said "several" males were killed and identified them as Abu Ghadiyah's body guards.
The raid capped nearly a year of debate among the CIA, US special forces and commanders in Iraq about how to handle the Syrian tributary of the Iraq foreign fighter problem, according to a former intelligence official and a current US military official who deals with Iraq. The US has been asking Syria to hand over Mr Abu Ghadiyah for months or years. The US treasury department claims he ran a resupply operation on the Syrian border. Syria rebuffed the US request, saying it was monitoring Mr Abu-Ghadiyah's activities, said a second former military official with direct recent knowledge of US intelligence in western Iraq.
Sunday's raid came just days after the commander of US forces in western Iraq said American troops were increasing efforts to secure the Syrian border, which he called an "uncontrolled" gateway for fighters entering Iraq. The raid was unusual and reflects increasing willingness by the Bush administration to embrace what US commanders consider a last resort: violating the sovereignty of a nation with which the US is not at war. 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 the governments of the nations whose borders were breached. Now, senior US officials favour judicious use of the newly aggressive tactics, seeing more advantages than disadvantages. They reason that whatever diplomatic damage is done will be mitigated when the president, George W Bush, leaves office and a new president is inaugurated.
That may work in Syria, where the government already has said it looks forward to a better relationship with the next US president, said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In Pakistan, however, special operations raids could box in the new American president by inflaming an already outraged public. "Public opinion is already very strongly against the US. and `anti' any US role or interference," Cordesman said. "Its not clear that you are not building up a broad public resistance that will bind the next administration."
Mr Bush secretly approved a separate directive three months ago to allow special operations forces to cross the Afghan border into Pakistan to conduct raids. Just one such raid has been carried out, according to a senior Pakistan government official. Helicopter-borne US special forces conducted a raid Sept 3 inside Pakistan. Islamabad has complained bitterly about the attack, which it says killed two dozen people, including civilians, and violated its sovereignty. The United States has become frustrated with the use of Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas as a haven for militants during the almost seven years since the Taliban was rousted from Afghanistan for harbouring Osaka bin Laden, the main al Qa'eda chief.
US forces, including the CIA, continue to conduct missile attacks inside the border region but are doing so in closer coordination with the Pakistan government, a Pakistani official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. Yesterday, suspected US missiles killed 20 people at the house of a Taliban commander near the Afghan border, the latest volley in a two-month onslaught on militant bases inside Pakistan, officials said.
Missile attacks have killed at least two senior al Qa'eda commanders in Pakistan's wild border zone this year, putting some pressure on extremist groups accused of planning attacks in Afghanistan. * AP