AMMAN, (Reuters) – Jordan’s state security court sentenced three Syrians and an Iraqi to death on Thursday for their role in firing rockets at two U.S. warships docked at the Red Sea port of Aqaba in 2005.
Three of them were sentenced in absentia by the three-man court. The rockets hit a warehouse and a hospital, killing a Jordanian soldier, and struck the Israeli port of Eilat.
The only militant in custody to be sentenced to death was Syrian Mohammed Hassan al-Sehli. The 53-year-old ringleader denied involvement in the attack on Aqaba which handles supplies for U.S. forces in Iraq.
The court also sentenced two Jordanians to 10 years in prison and acquitted two Syrians in custody.
The attack, which narrowly missed the USS Ashland and its sister ship the USS Kearsarge, was the most serious on U.S. targets in the staunchly pro-Western kingdom since the killing of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman in 2002.
It was claimed by al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq at the time, Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
The militants in custody pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to wage terror attacks that caused the death of an individual, possession of explosives to use illegally and acts to undermine relations with a foreign country.
Prosecutors said the suspects had initially planned to attack the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in the capital Amman.
They said Sehli had been in an al Qaeda sleeper cell in Amman. He was arrested shortly after his sons, Abdullah and Abdul-Rahman, and an Iraqi accomplice fled across the border to Iraq after executing the attack, security sources say.
Prosecutors say Sehli had sent his sons to fight U.S. forces in Iraq to become battle-hardened with the help of Sunni insurgents. He was driven by opposition to Jordan’s backing for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Lawyers said they would appeal against the verdict.
Jordanian security sources say the case highlighted concerns Syria had become a conduit for anti-U.S. fighters heading to Iraq — as U.S. officials complain — but said there was no proof the Damascus government condoned such activities.
Jordan’s close U.S. ties and its 1994 peace accord with Israel are unpopular with many in the conservative kingdom and there is strong support for Islamist militants in some areas.
Jordanian officials say several hundred die-hard militants with links to other radical Arab groups have entered Iraq via Jordan and Syria since the U.S. invasion.