SUKKARIYEH, Syria, (AP) – A cross-border raid by U.S. special forces killed the al-Qaeda-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-Qaeda’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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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.
However, local officials said seven men were killed and two people were wounded, including a woman. An AP reporter saw the bodies of seven men at the funerals Monday.
Amateur video taken by a villager on a cell phone Sunday showed four helicopters flying overhead as villagers pointed to the skies in alarm. The grainy images, viewed Monday by the AP, did not show the helicopters landing.
Another villager told the AP he saw at least two men taken into custody by U.S. forces, and whisked away by helicopter. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his life.
At the targeted building, the floor was bloodstained Monday, with abandoned tennis shoes scattered amid pieces of human flesh. A tent pitched near the site had bags of bread, pots and pans and wool blankets.
There was no visible security presence and visitors could move freely, a sign the normally tightly restrictive government wanted the damage seen.
About 30 women dressed in black wept in a small courtyard outside the home of Dawoud al-Hamad, who was killed in the bombing along with his four sons.
“They were innocent laborers who worked from dusk to dawn,” said the man’s wife, Rima. She said work at the construction site started last week.
Asked about U.S. reports that an al-Qaeda-linked group used the site, Siham, the widow of one of the man’s sons, Ibrahim, said: “I don’t know about any of that.”
“All I know is that they went to work and never came back,” said the mother of seven.
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-Qaeda and other Sunni militants remain active.
But the timing of the raid raised concerns it could hurt an uncertain U.S.-Iraq security agreement. Parliament must approve the measure before the U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31, but Iraqi Shiite lawmakers have expressed doubts the current version would pass.
“Now neighboring countries have a good reason to be concerned about the continued U.S. presence in Iraq,” Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said.