Families in this village near the Iraqi border buried loved ones Monday who they said were killed when the U.S. military launched a rare attack in Syrian territory. During the funerals, angry residents shouted anti-American slogans and carried banners reading: “Down with Bush and the American enemy.”
The Syrian government said four U.S. military helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction shortly before sundown Sunday, killing eight people in the village of Sukkariyeh — about five miles inside the Syrian border.
A U.S. military official in Washington confirmed Sunday 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 told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of cross-border raids.
Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, described the raid as “cowboy politics,” Speaking in London, al-Moallem said of the U.S. raid. He warned that if there was a repeat “we would defend our territories.”
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, U.S. 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.
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 Monday they hoped the raid would not harm their relations with neighboring 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 undersecretary 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 theater of military operations where anti-Iraq terrorist activity takes place.”
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’s cemetery saw the bodies of seven men — none of them children. The discrepancy could not immediately be explained.
Sunday’s attack also comes at a time when Syria appears to be making some amends with the United States. Though Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a destabilizing country in the Middle East, Damascus has been trying in recent months to change its image and end years of global seclusion.
Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, was in London on Monday and scrapped plans to hold a joint news conference with his British counterpart.
Jihad Makdissi, a spokesman at Syria’s embassy in the British capital, accused the United States of “applying the law of the jungle.”
The U.S. military in Iraq said it did not have any information about the incident. But the raid came just days after the commander of U.S. 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.
In Sukkariyeh, villager Jumaa Ahmad al-Hamad told The Associated Press he was walking Sunday when he saw four helicopters, two of which landed.
“Shooting then started ringing for more than 10 minutes,” al-Hamad said Monday. After the helicopters stopped firing and left the area, he and other villagers went to the site and discovered the bodies of his uncle, Dawoud al-Hamad, and four of his uncle’s sons, who he said were killed.
Syrian government newspapers also published scathing criticisms in Monday’s editions. Tishrin splashed its front pages with a headline denouncing the raid as a “U.S. war crime,” while the Al-Baath newspaper described the attack in an editorial as a “stunning, shocking and unprecedented adventure.”
“Even while it’s preparing itself to leave the White House, the Bush administration seems determined to demonstrate its foolishness, and this is a dangerous indication of political madness and stupid arrogance,” Al-Baath said.
Some Iraqi officials warned that the U.S. military raid into Syria could be used by opponents of the security pact under negotiation with the United States.
“Now neighboring countries have a good reason to be concerned about the continued U.S. presence in Iraq,” prominent Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman told The Associated Press.
Abbawi said he did not believe the Syrian raid would affect the security negotiations but acknowledged that “some will use the incident for the argument against the agreement.”
Sunday’s attack comes as the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq has been declining. A senior U.S. military intelligence official told the AP in July that it had been cut to an estimated 20 a month. That’s a 50 percent decline from six months ago, and just a fifth of the estimated 100 foreign fighters who were infiltrating Iraq a year ago, according to the official.
The area targeted Sunday is near the Iraqi border city of Qaim, which had been a major crossing point for fighters, weapons and money coming into Iraq to fuel the Sunni insurgency.
Ninety percent of the foreign fighters enter through Syria, according to U.S. intelligence. Foreigners are some of the most deadly fighters in Iraq, trained in bomb-making and with small-arms expertise and more likely to be willing suicide bombers than Iraqis.